Archive for Books

Random Reading

Miscellaneous personal book highlights of last year.

Fiction

  • Friend of the Earth (T.C. Boyle, 2000): Set in a post-apocalyptic, near future, it really is the dark humor that kept me turning pages. The not-so-glamorous past of a well-intentioned, but somehow morally challenged environmentalist is told in flashbacks, while in the present he struggles to keep the last remaining animals from killing each other (and him). I also liked Tortilla Curtain and Drop City by the same Puli-owning author.
  • Matter (Iain M. Banks, 2008): Books like this drew me away from gaming. Fiction/science fiction writer Iain (M.) Banks unleashes ultra-powerful civilizations and medieval monarchies, worlds of worlds, artificial intelligences and ship minds in a creative firestorm.
  • Watchmen/From Hell (Alan Moore, 1987/1991-96). Yeah, I admit I’m late to the game and only stumbled over these graphic novels lying around in bookstores supporting the Watchmen movie. Still both Watchmen (fallen super-heroes) and From Hell (Jack the Ripper) are excellent reads and beautifully illustrated.
  • The Work of the Night (Die Arbeit der Nacht, Thomas Glavinic, 2006). A disturbing novel by Austrian writer Thomas Glavinic where his protagonist wakes up one morning in depopulated Vienna. What follows is a downward spiral from enthusiasm (who doesn’t want to take a sports car and drive flat out on the busiest city streets?) to great loneliness and total psychic breakdown.
  • The Terrors of Ice and Darkness (Die Schrecken des Eises und der Finsternis, Christoph Ransmays, 1984): Based on diaries from the Austro-Hungarian North Pole Expedition, Ransmayr depicts the true horror and insanity of this polar expedition. Very recommended reading, although I’m not sure how much of the seemingly authentic language survived the translation.

Computer Science

  • Coders at Work (Peter Seibel, 2009): I liked Beautiful Code and am currently reading Programming Pearls, but the interviews in Coders at Work stand out for their broad coverage of ancient and current technology, from people working on the first Unixes and the guy that wrote Live Journal to Donald Knuth. Peter Seibel knows one or two things about coding, and it shows in the questions he asks, in the direction he is able to give the interviewees. The only gaping hole for me was game programmers, since they always did a lot of bleeding-edge coding. But there’s always Masters of Doom.
  • Programming in Scala (Odersky et al, 2008): A very approachable introduction to the next-gen JVM/CLR programming language Scala. My enthusiasm for the language is currently a bit declining given the inherent JVM restrictions and the complete lack of a standard library, but I learned a lot just from reading this book and tinkering away with my own little programs.
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Book Recommendation: Beautiful Code

I’m not even halfway through yet, but O’Reilly’s Beautiful Code really is a great book on the arts of programming. It contains about 30 essays by top-notch programmers, including veterans like Brian Kernighan or Charles Petzold, on what they consider beautiful code or programming concepts. The chapters vary greatly in difficulty, including both (rather) easy-to-understand concepts like a regexp matcher in 20 lines that show why simplicity is often a win and very specialized contributions like an image filter in Microsoft’s Intermediate Language. I think this is a book best read not cover-to-cover, instead just pick the most interesting chapters for you and see how elegant code can be.

One thing that also comes to mind reading this book is how short-lived many of the contributions were. Once-glorious hacks like Windows’ bitblt() implementation do not have much relevance in today’s world, where Google’s Map-Reduce provides the foundation of an enormous technological success story.

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Nerdy Book In-Jokes

Tal Cohen maintains a great list of book in-jokes found in maths and computer publications. My favourite one is this index entry of The Java Programming Language:

In the index, we find (p. 579):

IndexOutOfBoundsException: 30, 196, 210, 596

The book is only 595 pages long.

Found via reddit.

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Spaceland: A Great Novel of the Fourth Dimension

I just finished Spaceland: A Novel of the Fourth Dimension and heartily recommend it. It’s a story about a guy who is augmented by a species from the fourth dimension. He is then able to see and move in the next dimension, and travels from “spaceland” (our three-dimensional world) to its four-dimensional neighbours, Klupdom and Dronia.

Storywise, it’s a rather ordinary sci-fi novel, what caught me was Rudy Rucker’s intuitive description of how the fourth dimension might be like. The hero travels through one- and twodimensional worlds, and in leaving them when he gains another degree of freedom illustrates how hard to grasp the idea of a higher dimension is. For example, the line segments of a one-dimensional world cannot understand that they could see someone else than their left and right neighbours – nor see a reason for it, since they communicate by sound anyway (which is also their way of reproduction). Illustrated by simple sketches, this book is a great read for anyone slightly interested in maths, physics or other dimensions in general.

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