Book Review: The Mother Tongue

Well, I’ve figured out how Bill Bryson writes his hugely amusing tomes. Yup, I sussed out the formula:

1. pick a topic of interest that folks don’t know much about

2. research it well, finding both fundamental facts and interesting tidbits

3. present the research in a conversational manner, dropping witticisms left and right.

Let’s see how this applies to the latest Bryson book I’ve read: The Mother Tongue: English and How It Got That Way.

Point 1: Not many folks, least of all in America, know much about our language. This is kind of astonishing, given that it’s our primary means of communicating (trust me, I spent several weeks in small Swiss towns, and I can tell you from experience that language is the main method of communicating. Charades isn’t as fun when you want something to eat). But, other than the most common word (the) and letter (e), and the fact that English doesn’t have gendered words, I didn’t know much about English.

Point 2: This book shines here. Did you know that the word tits hasn’tchanged since the 10th century (page 215)? Or that Japan buys as many copies of the Oxford English Dictionary as the USA, and more than Britain (page 195)? Or that one sound (yi) in the Pekinese dialect of Mandarin stands for 215 words (page 86)? To support these sometimes absurd sounding claims, we get some footnotes and an eight page bibliography.

Point 3: As always, Bryson is prepared to take a pot shot at any ludicrous statement or proposition, and the English language provides plenty of those. Some of my favorites:

1. “…It is difficult to escape the conclusion that the British have such distinctive place-names not because they just accidentally evolved, but rather because the British secretly like living in places with names like Lower Slaughter and Great Snoring” (page 205).

2. Quoth a congressman, “If English was good enough for Jesus Christ, it’s good enough for me” (page 195). Bryson doesn’t even bother to comment on this, letting the absurdity scream for itself.

3. When examining the dictionary of Samuel Johnson, Bryson points out that Johnson defines “oats as a grain that sustained horses in England and people in Scotland” (page 153). He lets several of Johnson’s tart remarks speak for themselves, but he also examines why this English dictionary (which wasn’t the first) had such an impact.

Just the names of the chapters gives you and idea of the scope of this book. From “The World’s Language” to “Spelling” to “Names” to “Swearing,” Bryson leaves little out. Even the discussion of cross word puzzles and palindromes (hardly exciting stuff), in the “Wordplay” chapter, doesn’t bore.

Sure, it’s a formulaic book, but a damn good one.

Book Review: The Alchemist

This book, by Paulo Coelho, is, like all fables, written on many levels. Ostensibly the story of a shepard in Spain who, unlike so many people, follows his dreams. He does get a little help from the supernatural, but many of the stories most interesting thoughts come from his musings on nature. His travels take him across the Mediteranean into Africa, where he meets several archetypal characters (the Man Afraid of Change, the Waiting Woman, the Wise Shaman, the Warrior Chief, the Cynical Fool), learns about himself and his dreams, and finds his destiny.

An interesting way to look at this story is to ask the question: who is the title character? Alchemy is such a potent idea–the changing of one element into another has had a grasp on the human mind for as long as we have known about elements. But, of course, alchemy has secondary meanings–an alchemist transforms. Is the boy an alchemist, for transforming himself and the lives of those around him? Is God the alchemist, for transforming the destinies of humanity? Is the reader the alchemist, for taking the fable and transforming its words into something personally meaningful?

My favorite part about this book was its gritty reality. I like epics, but there were no sweeping vistas and no ubermensch heros in this book. Everything the boy does (and we never learn his name) is something you and I could do. I guess that’s the point of the book.

Update: As ihath commented you do learn the boy’s name. It’s revealed on the first page. But, as I remember, it’s not used much throughout the book, maintaining the everyman nature of the story.

“The Alchemist” at Amazon.

Book Review: The Long Dark Tea Time of the Soul

Updated 2/25/2007: Added amazon link.

Douglas Adams is amazingly whimsical. If the Hitchhiker’s Guide to The Galaxy didn’t convince you of that, the Dirk Gently novels will. Gently is a detective, but no Sherlock Holmes. No, rather than ruling out the impossible to leave only the improbable, Gently prefers to believe the impossible, because it makes so much more sense than the improbable. He solves his case through ingenuity, luck, and a belief in the interconnectedness of all things.

A highlight for me is Dirk’s method of finding directions. He just follows someone who looks like they know where they are going. This, he says, doesn’t always get him to where he wanted to go, but almost always gets him to where he needs to be. If only we all had such faith!

This book is the second of two about the private eye. I don’t want to give away too much of the story, as it is definitely a mystery, but it covers some of the same ground as American Gods in a much less sinister manner. Everything has a reason and a rhyme in this book, even if at first encounter, an event makes no sense, neither to the characters nor the reader. While the ending is a bit abrupt for my taste, if you like whimsy, you’ll get an ample helping with this book.

Link to this book on Amazon.

Book Review: Afghanistan

Updated 2/25/2007: Added amazon link.

Afghanistan: A Short History of Its People and Politics, by Martin Ewans, is a fantastic book. This fascinating account of this plucky country was chock full of facts that have immediate relevance. Covering from ancient times to 2002, this book provides a traditional history–no stories of the working classes or women. But it covers the byzantine regime changes of Afghanistan very well. It als does a fine job of explaining how the Afghanistan state was in constant tension between the local tribal powers and the more modern central authority of the king. The foreign situation was also an exercise in balance, with the Afghans depending on money, guns and expertise from British India to fend off the Russian Empire. However, the relationship with the Brits wasn’t entirely golden, as the three Anglo-Afghan wars suggest.

While the history was intensely interesting, the last chapters of the book, which cover the politics and battles of the last two decades which have left Afghanistan such a mess, were the most relevant for me. If you want to know how mcuh the CIA spent supporting the Taliban, it’s in there. If you want to know which external nations supported which of the warring factions, it’s in there. If you want to know why Afghanistan grows the majority of the world’s opium, it’s in there.

I won’t say this book was easy to get through. The writing is quite dense. The frequent re-appearance of characters was at times confusing, but I fear that is more a feature of Afghan history than a shortcoming of the book. For a concise political history of a nation that we’re becoming more and more involved with, check it out.

Link to the book on Amazon.

Amazon Web Services

I remember way back when, in 2000, when EJBs were first hot. Everyone wanted to use EJBs in projects, mostly for the resume value. But there was also a fair bit of justified curiosity in this new technology that was being hyped so much. What did they do? Why were they cool? How did they help you?

I did some reading, and some research, and even implemented one or two toy EJBs. I remember talking to a more experienced colleague, saying “Well, all EJBs provide you is life-cycle assistance–just automatic pooling of objects, a set of services you can access, transaction support, and maybe SQL code generation.” Now, I’m young and inexperienced enough to never have had the joy of doing a CORBA application, but my colleague, who I believe had had the joy of doing one or three of those, must have been rolling her eyes when I said this. ‘Just’ life-cycle assistance, eh?

I just looked at Amazon’s web services, and I’m beginning to understand how she felt. Sure, all web services provides you is easy, (relatively) standardized access to the resources and data available in a web application. Sure, I could get the same information by screen-scraping (and many an application has done just that). But, just as EJB containers made life easier by taking care of grimy infrastructure, so do web services make life easier by exposing the information of a web application in a logical format, rather than one dependent on markup.

Using perl and XSLT (and borrowing heavily from the Developer Kit, I built an application using Amazon’s web services (the XML over HTTP API, not the full SOAP API). I was amazed at how easy it was to put together. This was partly due to the toy-like nature of the application, and how much it leveraged what Amazon already provided, but it was also due to the high level of abstraction I was able to use. Basically, Amazon exported their data model to me, and I was able to make small manipulations of that model. It took me the better part of three hours to put together an application which allows you to search on a keyword or ISBN and gives all the related books that Amazon has for that book. You know, the ‘Customers who bought this book also bought’ section.

I’ve always felt that that was the most useful bit of Amazon, and a key differentiator. This feature, as far as I can tell, leverages software to replace the knowledgeable bookstore employee. It does this by correlating book purchases. This software lends itself to some interesting uses. (I wanted to have a link to an app I found a while ago, where you entered two different artists/authors and it found the linkage between the two. But I can’t find it!)

I like this feature, but it also sucks. The aforementioned bookstore employee is much better than Amazon. Buying a book doesn’t mean that I’ll enjoy it–there are many books I’ve purchased that I wonder why I did so, even one hour after leaving the store–so that linkage isn’t surefire. In addition, purchase is a high barrier, and will probably cause me to not branch out as much as I should–rather than waste my money picking a random book, I’ll pick a book from an area I know. The book store employee, if good, can overcome both of these faults, because the process is more interactive, and the suggester has intelligence. But he doesn’t scale nearly as well as cheaply, nor does he have the breadth of Amazon’s database. (And he hates staying up all night responding to HTTP requests.)

Book Review: A Farce To Be Reckoned With

I just finished ‘A Farce to Be Reckoned With’ by Roger Zelazny and Robert Sheckley. I’ve read a fair bit of Zelazny–the Amber novels and Lord Of Light and some others. This book looked more light hearted, but I figured I’d give it a try.

I was sorely disappointed. There’s no plot. Or, rather, there is a plot, but it makes no sense. Plot turns are introduced (like the Greek gods getting free) and then dropped, willy nilly. There’s a character called Peter Westfall who gets Pandora’s Box at the beginning, but we never hear from him again. And at the end, we have a fight scene that is a total deus ex machina–the end of the book comes with no explanations.

Normally, you expect characters to have reasons for things they do. They can do weird things, but they should justify it to themselves, and have the actions be a natural outgrowth of their past. This is called characterization. Characters in this book have one sentence justifications for absurd actions. We have a nun who decides to deal with the devil, and an angel who is ordered to spy. There’s a set of religious pilgrims headed toward Venice during the Middle Ages. A demon joins them, proves himself to be a demon, and they don’t even run from him.

The dialog is wretched. Everyone converses in a stilted manner. The description is campy; the authors apparently decided to focus on the clothing of women–there are attractive wimples and red low cut blouses galore.

It feels like this book has been subjected to random editing. Or perhaps worse than random, as I feel that there may have been malicious intent at confusing the reader. Characters pop up, disappear for a while, then pop up again with no explanation (an example is the young lady named Priscilla [or Puss]).

But you know what? All of the above flaws could have been forgiven if there had been any scene, any scene at all, that was funny. I wanted to forgive the flaws–I wanted to laugh–I read the entire book, didn’t I? But I didn’t even crack a smile the entire book. There were times I put it down and thought to myself, ‘Why are you wasting your time?’ I will admit, I finished the book (I think for the same reasons that folks slow down to look at a wreck on the highway).

Don’t buy this book. If you want some funny fantasy, read ‘A Night in the Lonesome October’ (which is great!) or anything by Blaylock. Don’t buy this book.

Book Review: The Worthing Saga

I recently re-read The Worthing Saga by Orson Scott Card. This book really matters to me, on a number of different levels. It’s not his most touching novel and by no means does it have the best characters. But it examines the nature of morality in a direct, simple manner that I’ve not found in too many other books.

The premise is that, due to genetics, a race of super beings exists, and they’ve saved humankind from all pain–they watch over everyone else. No more physical injuries–if you cut off your hand, they can heal it from afar. No more mental anguish–if your parent dies, they make it seem as though it was a year ago. No more social problems–bastards are prevented in the womb, and similar actions have no consequences.

And that’s the fundamental issue. What does it mean to be an adult human being when actions have no consequences? Without choice, what is morality? These are issues that religions and philosophers have struggled with for thousands and thousands of years, but I like Card’s answer.

In addition to the main novella, the book also contains a set of short stories that ‘back up’ the main one. Just as the Silmarillion, while not a fantastic read, enhances your appreciation of Middle Earth, these backing stories add depth to the Worthing universe. It’s not often that you get a chance to read this underlying material, and that’s another thing that makes this book unique.

It’s also fantastic to see Orson Scott Card evolve as a writer. He was able to pick and choose the best of these short stories, but even so, you can still see him pay homage to the writers he read (as he mentions in the preface) as well as develop ideas of his own.

It’s a great book, and I highly recommend it.

Book Review: Second Edition of “A Programmer’s Guide to Java Certification”

Updated 2/25/2007: Added amazon link.

I used “A Programmer’s Guide to Java Certification” as a study guide for achieving my Java Certified Programmer (JCP) status two years ago, so when I had the chance to review the second edition, I jumped at it (full disclosure: the publisher sent me the second edition to review). As I expected, I was again aghast and delighted at the level of detail, the exercises and the arrangement of this fine book.

Mughal and Rasmussen do a good job of covering all the nitty gritty details that the JCP requires one to know. Whether the length in bits of an int, the difference between overloading and overriding, or the order in which initializer expressions get executed, this book gives one enough detail to overwhelm the novice Java programmer, as well as cause those more experienced to scratch their heads and perhaps write a small program to verify what was read was valid. While this book lacks the discussion of I/O and the GUI of the previous edition (due to changes in the JCP test), it has a fine set of chapters on some of the fundamental libraries and classes. My two favorite explications are the chapter on Threads (Chapter 9), where that complicated subject is treated well enough to motivate more learning while not overwhelming the reader with detail, and the String and StringBuffer section of Chapter 10. So much of the Java programming I’ve done has been dealing with Strings, so this section, which covers the String class method by method and deals with issues of memory and performance as well as normal use, is very welcome.

The exercises were crucial to my passing the JCP, and they remain useful in this book. Grouped at the end of logical sections of chapters, they break up the text and re-iterate the lessons learned in the previous sections. The answers to these exercises are in the back of the book. Also, a full mock exam is included at the back, as well as an annotated version of the JCP exam requirements which serves as a study guide (both for the full JCP 1.4 and for the upgrade exam). Reading over the mock exam definitely let me know what areas I’d need to study if I was taking the JCP again. In short, the didactic nature of this book has not been lost.

The arrangement of this book is also useful. A fine index and the logical progression through the features of the Java language eases the onslaught of detailed information mentioned above. The extensive use of UML diagrams (especially class and sequence diagrams) was helpful as well. If one reads the book sequentially, one learns about how object references are declared (Chapter 4), then the various control structures available in Java (Chapter 5), then the basics of Object Orientation (Chapter 6), then the object life cycle (Chapter 8), in a very linear fashion. Additionally, there is extensive cross-referencing. This may not be useful to the novice programmer, but to anyone using this book as a reference, it’s invaluable, because it allows Mughal and Rasmussen to provide yet more logical linking of disparate topics.

However, this book is not for everyone. I wouldn’t buy it if I wanted to learn to program. While there are a few chapters that have general value (Chapter 1, Chapter 6), the emphasis on mastering idiomatic Java, not general programming concepts. Also, as they state in the preface, this is not a complete reference book for Java. It covers only what is needed for the JCP. Finally, if one wants to know how to use Java in the real world, don’t buy this book. While most of the java programming I’ve done has benefited from the understanding I gained from this book, it has not resembled the coding I did for the exercises at all. This makes sense–this book is teaching the fundamentals, and does not pretend to cover any of the higher level APIs and concepts that are used in everyday programming.
Link to this book on Amazon.


Update 2/25/2007: Added link to Amazon.

Database Nation, by Simson Garfinkel, is a fantastic book. I admit that I’m a fan of what I like to call ‘Chicken Little’ books (I like William Greider and I even remember thinking that Revelations was the best book in the Bible as a child). My friends tell me that one of my typical greetings is ‘Have you read XXX? You should!’ I like books that challenge me and confront me with realities that I haven’t considered before.

Database Nation definitely challenges. The author approaches the burgeoning issue of personal privacy, and the coming lack thereof, in several different ways. Whether it is biometric identification, the possibility of protecting privacy via property rights, or a chapter of possible solutions, he treats the topic in a manner befitting its fundamental nature. I found his historical emphasis, where he compares the current situation to the one created in the early 1950s by the newly forming credit reporting agencies, to be especially useful. There’s nothing new under the sun, as they say. And the problems we’ve faced with privacy before have dealt with. The sky has fallen before, but it’s possible to pin it back up.

Privacy has been on my mind for a while now. I work in technology, and one of the things that is allowing this current invasion of privacy is the ability to collect, store and mine vast amounts of information. As an example of just how far it has gone, I can access 12 million business records (and 120 million US households) via my library’s
website–they’ve bought access to a database called referenceUSA. Search on business size, focus, years advertising in the Yellow Pages, location, etc. Slice and dice as you wish. As part of the usage agreement, you can’t use the database for unsolicited commercial mail, but, having found the names in Reference USA, you could look up the business in the Yellow Pageseasily enough.

While such data aggregation has been possible for years and years (ask the insurance companies), computing power and disk space have become so cheap that it’s much less work than it used to be–and collecting such information is only getting easier. See Cringely’s column for a suggested solution. I’m not sure how I feel about it, but it’s one idea for keeping the sky from falling.

I watched Enemy of the State again recently. While I enjoyed watching Will Smith and Gene Hackman avoided the satellite images and bugs of the NSA, I have no idea how much the movie made up and how much it nailed on the head (the Economist had this to say about satellite imagery in 2000). Still, this movie displays in a fundamental way what loss of privacy can mean. When folks say ‘hey, I don’t have anything to hide’ I don’t think they realize just what it means to have no privacy. There are shades and shades of ‘hiding’; there are things that I would tell my parents that I wouldn’t tell an acquaintance. Likewise, there are items I’d tell a new friend that I would rather not be published in
the daily paper. Discretion is something that all humans need–you do have things to hide since no one is perfect at all times! Having something to hide doesn’t necessarily mean that you are doing something illegal–perhaps it’s just embarrassing (or would be if exposed to certain people).

Another aspect is the federal ‘do not call’ list and all the hullabaloo surrounding it. Telemarketers feel they aren’t going to be able to survive–everyone else feels they don’t want to be called unless they opt in. Even Dave Barry has chimed
. This is an issue that resonates with everyone and calls into dramatic perspective the tension between making your contact information publicly available and wanting to control what someone else does with that information. Imagine what it would be like if everything were public?

Expectation of reasonable privacy is something fundamental. I’d hate to lose it.

Link to “Database Nation” on Amazon.

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