Monday, September 5, 2016

So, You Want to Be a Coder?

I picked this up because I wondered what advice the world was giving kids about coding these days. We certainly have come a long way from the books I started with in the 80's, which mostly took two forms: first, "Here's some badly written examples of BASIC programs written in a dialect that likely won't work on your computer," and second, "Here's what a computer is, CPU, ROM, RAM, blah, blah, blah," which was equally disappointing because it didn't really provide any knowledge you could use. The first kind of book at the very least forced you learn debugging!

This book is a whole different story. It is full of interviews with real software developers, telling stories of how they got into coding, and what they like about it. It also explains a great deal about the realities of software development, and does a decent job outlining the kinds of projects you might get into (web, systems, games, AI, robots, security/hacking). It also outlines the languages you are likely to be working in (I must admit that I am kind of freaked out that computer languages seem to have stopped changing and improving at this point. Will we really be writing in C++ in the year 2030?), and talks about their differences. The one thing it does not do is teach any coding. Honestly, I think that was the best choice the author could make -- she leaves the long process of coding instruction to other books or media, and spends her time framing up the experience of coding. The only part of the book I disliked somewhat was a quiz at the beginning that suggests that if you'd rather work with other people than work alone, then coding probably isn't for you, which I think is both an incorrect and insulting stereotype.

You can see from the cover that the book is somewhat slanted at girls, but not overly so. There is a lot of "bubble writing" on the inside, and emphasis on the personal experience of coding, but overall I would say it only slants towards girls in a kind of 60/40 way, which seems more than fair given the history of coding books which have slanted the other direction.

In short, if you have a tween that is thinking about a career in coding, this book would be a great complement to their attempts to learn to code, helpfully putting the possibilities of coding into context.

Tuesday, August 23, 2016

The Life of Samuel Johnson

The Life of Samuel Johnson is one of those books that if you read a lot, particularly if you read a lot about literature, just keeps coming up. I first met Johnson and Boswell in The Lifetime Reading Plan by Clifton Fadiman. Again I met them in The Little, Brown Book of Anecdotes. Eventually I felt like I was hearing Boswell mentioned all the time, and after reading a review of a new biography of Johnson in The London Review of Books, I decided that it was time that I paid an overdue visit to the home of Boswell and Johnson. It is a daunting book, a very long and large book, and I did not imagine that I would really be able to read it. But an audiobook is a different story -- I could commit 30 minutes a day to that via my commute. Surely, there must be one at the Pittsburgh library -- but there was not! Did one exist? It turns out, it does exist -- an edition on CD from Blackstone audiobooks. Maybe I'll just buy it? Turns out it is 43 hours, and costs $200! On a whim, I put in a request to the library, asking whether they would consider buying it. I got a prompt response: they were surprised they did not own it, and would be glad to order it for their collection. And so, not only was I able to listen to it, I got it fresh from the publisher. But could I really sit through 43 CDs? It turns out I could!

It is kind of funny that the book is so acclaimed. Its moments of insight are rare. What it possesses is something special: a deep love of the biographer for his subject. What seems to have happened, more or less, was the James Boswell was a big time fanboy of Samuel Johnson. And at some point when Boswell was in his twenties, and Johnson was in his fifties, Boswell gets to meet his idol. They become friends, and Boswell then spends the next decades slavishly diarizing every encounter he has with Johnson, and everything he hears about him. This results in a somewhat peculiar biography: Johnson's first fifty years are covered somewhat briskly, and in summary. Then the book settles down with day by day descriptions of what Johnson did and said, often word for word, with conversations presented as if they were the script of a play. The result is not a view of Johnson from a distance, but the feeling that you are sitting in an eighteenth century drawing room with Boswell and Johnson, being part of the conversation. Some of this conversation, naturally is about philosophy, but most of it is gossip, and arguably, the value of the book comes more from the picture of eighteenth century life that it paints, rather than for its picture of Johnson's life in particular. Details of how book publishing worked at that time are spoken of in detail (the booksellers themselves were often the publishers, and authors generally paid a fixed price with no royalties) and one hears about all kinds of details of daily life that you might not find out any other way. For example, London apparently had a law limiting the number of hansom cabs, giving out exactly 1000 licenses, which were displayed prominently on each cab. Johnson mentions a day when he happened to notice cab #1 and number #1000 parked right next to each other. Interesting, this system seems to have changed little in about 200 years.

As for Johnson himself, he is a very strange figure. Fat, ugly to the point of disfigurement, slovenly, limping, and with strange tics and mannerisms. Despite all this, he was not only incredibly accomplished, but proud to the point of arrogance. He had strong opinions on everything. He seems like the kind of person whose brash intensity would push most people away, and one sometimes gets the impression that he was included in London society primarly as an amusing figure, as a sort of freak. But he clearly had several close friends, who appreciated the double-edged sword of brash truth. Boswell is constantly relating conversations where Johnson got "very hot" (angry) to the point he would lose his temper. But it would take a person of a peculiar temperament to write a whole dictionary himself. For while Johnson did a lot of writing, this is clearly his most singular accomplishment: writing the very first English dictionary. A French dictionary existed at this time, created by dozens of professors over many years. Somehow, through intense effort, Johnson created a complete dictionary almost completely by himself, in just a few years. Further, his greater accomplishment may be his creation of a magazine called The Rambler, which he mostly penned by himself, and was widely celebrated for its insight and overall excellence. One suspects he must have been somewhere on the autism spectrum, and used that to his full advantage.

Anyway, I'm glad I took time to experience this entire book. It gave me a great view of life in the eighteenth century, it rekindled my interest in Latin (Johnson is constantly quoting Juvenal and others), and I feel like I got to know Johnson and Boswell. This book is perhaps best known for its Johnson quotes: here are a few of my favorites.

  • Curiosity is one of the permanent and certain characteristics of a vigorous intellect.
  • No man ever yet became great by imitation.
  • Nothing will ever be attempted if all possible objections must first be overcome.
  • A boy should be introduced to such books by having his attention directed to the arrangement, to the style, and other excellencies of composition; that the mind being thus engaged by an amusing variety of objects may not grow weary.
  • WHO is ruined by gaming? You will not find six instances in an age.
  • All severity that does not tend to increase good, or prevent evil, is idle.
  • A cucumber should be well-sliced, dressed with pepper and vinegar, and then thrown out.
  • Adversity is the state in which man most easily becomes acquainted with himself, being especially free of admirers then.
  • Getting money is not all a man's business: to cultivate kindness is a valuable part of the business of life.
  • He who makes a beast of himself, gets rid of the pain of being a man.
  • What is written without effort is in general read without pleasure.
  • Your manuscript is both good and original, but the part that is good is not original and the part that is original is not good.
  • Patriotism is the last refuge of a scoundrel.
and finally, this one, which I think sums up Johnson perfectly:
  • Don't think of retiring from the world until the world will be sorry that you retire. I hate a fellow whom pride or cowardice or laziness drives into a corner, and who does nothing when he is there but sit and growl. Let him come out as I do, and bark.
I feared I would not be able to make it through such a long and strange book. But once I settled to its rhythm, I really enjoyed it, and when it was over, I find that I missed visiting with Boswell and Johnson each day. 

You may have noticed that I haven't written much in my blog lately. With everything I have going on, it's been hard to fit writing into my life, hard to decide where it should fit. But even though I finished this book some time ago, it has continued to be on my mind, I think partly because it is a book about the discipline of writing. It certainly is about Johnson's discipline, but also Boswell's: if he did not have the discipline to so thoroughly diarize his conversations with Johnson, this book wouldn't exist. I have some hard decisions to make about how to fit the discipline of writing into my own life. In any case, I'm very glad to be able to check this book off my list, and I'm pleased with the impressions it has left on my life and habits.

Saturday, March 5, 2016

Armada

I wanted to like this -- I really did. I mean, I loved Ready Player One. LOVED it. Loved it so much I never wrote about it in this blog, because I just had WAY too much to say about it. Guess I should write that sometime. But this didn't grab me nearly as much. Firstly, the nostalgia wasn't there, which was a major hook of RP1. I mean, sure, he drops 2 or 3 cultural references on every page, but references are one thing, visiting the places of our youth is another. It probably doesn't help that I have no love for "jet fighter" games. Never could manage to sit through Top Gun, thought Microsoft Flight Simulator was super dull, didn't care about playing X-Wing, and, I'm going to say it, The Last Starfighter was just plain dumb. I don't care about space combat stuff, I don't know why. All that racing and chasing just always seemed both dull and violent to me. Like Sun Tzu said, "Warring is Boring." And this is a whole book about warring. Kind of like a pale shadow of Ender's Game. See, I actually liked Ender's Game, because it wasn't actually about racing and chasing, it was about human psychology, and it had a point. If Armada has a point, I guess I missed it. Jeez, I'm sounding really harsh about this. I mean, I didn't hate it, I just wanted to like as much as RP1, and I really didn't. There were moments in it that I thought were kind of fun -- but I wanted them to be deeper. In some ways, it felt like this was written to be a movie -- everything was very action oriented, and happened very fast. Another thing I didn't care for much: during the whole book there is a looming "mystery" that is kind of rubbed right in your face, and you can see clearly that the whole book is moving toward that mystery... and unfortunately, when it was revealed, it didn't surprise me much. Also also, putting on my VR nerd headset for a minute, the idea that lots of people play FPS and dogfight games in HMDs seems pretty unlikely, given how motion sickness works.

Wow, what a lot of nerdly complaining from me! I'm worried I'll hurt Ernest Cline's feelings, but I kind of have the idea that working on the movie of RP1 with Steven Spielberg will console him. I did have some fun reading the book, and if I had any space combat fantasies, I probably would have liked it a lot. And whatever Cline writes next, I'm sure I'll read that, too!

Wednesday, January 6, 2016

Slade House

This is the first David Mitchell book I have read. I saw the Cloud Atlas movie, and was kind of underwhelmed. His fans tell me this book is an extension of the world he created in The Bone Clocks, but I don't really know anything about that. But despite low expectations I really did enjoy reading this little book! I first spied it's intriguing cover at a Barnes and Noble, and then at some other chain bookstore, but when I happened to be in Aardvark Books in San Francisco, and there it was again, I decided it was time to buy it.
I love stories based on rules, and this is definitely one of those. I can't tell you almost any of them without giving spoilers, because learning the rules is a big part of the fun of the book. It was darker and creepier than I expected -- but only until I understood the rules, and then it was just interesting. The narrative mechanic is very clever, and it is one that I can't believe hasn't been used by more authors. It is kind of like an excellent Doctor Who story, and I suspect someone will make a movie out of it -- in the right hands it could be absolutely charming. That is, for a terrifyingly horrific nightmare story. I was glad I read it, and was sorry when it was over. I guess I'll have to check out his other books!

Monday, December 28, 2015

Probe

Probe is an old (1964) Parker Brothers Game that is a kind of four player Hangman with various ornaments hung on it. What separates it from Hangman:

  1. You can include "blanks" at the front and back of your word, to make things more difficult for your opponents.
  2. It is up to four players, and on your turn, you can guess a letter from any of them. 
  3. The slots you put your letters into have different point values, and you get points each time you guess a letter correctly. 
  4. On each turn, you first draw an "activity card" which activates various random events "deduct 10 from your score", "opponent to your right exposes a letter", "add 25 to your score", "take an additional turn", etc. 
  5. After your word has been guessed, you can continue to play and earn points. 
It would seem that Probe is trying to draft off the success of Scrabble "The 384 cards in this game provide more combinations of letters than any other word game." 

Our playing experience was kind of "meh." The drawn cards are kind of irritating, and much of the game is spent trying to remember what letters have already been guessed for each player... and you feel kind of dumb if you reguess one that you didn't remember. It also involves no new skill that Hangman didn't already have. Rounds are relatively short, and setup is kind of a hassle... so, in all, it wasn't something any of us wanted to play again. But if you *love* hangman, this is an interesting four player twist. 

Sunday, December 6, 2015

In the Surgical Theatre

I found my first Dana Levin poem in an issue of Poetry magazine, and I was really struck by the fluidity, the clarity, and the cleverness of her poetry. So, I picked this up, her first book of poems, since it seemed to be her highest rated book, as well. Unfortunately, I mostly found it too disturbing to read! Most of the poems are about surgery, both real and metaphorical, and as a result are full of gory imagery. They were beautiful, nonetheless, but I have a low tolerance for gore. They weren't all gory, however. One weirdly poignant poem was about the sexual frustration of a teenage boy, and the one that was by far my favorite was just called "Movie." Some excerpts here:
EXIT,
   blood-red beacon in the dark.
The screen gray like smoke, gray
   as a scrim of ash,
the red curtains furling round it like flames.
   Red curtains, red walls, red seats and carpet, even our faces
under red reflected shadows--
   Me and two kids and a man.
...
   I went in, I waited, for the flashes and burns
of another blockbuster, for the requisite explosions
   and hip bon mots,
for the red aesthetic
   slaughter--
   And the two kids: what did they want?
A little chaos, a little blood
   to make their day, their unpredictable fragmented day--
And the man,
   what did he want?
O long tunnel out of despair, distraction of someone else's
   story---
...
Arnold, Disney, Mafia two-step, make us, make us
   be--
something else for awhile.
...
To give up the burden awhile.
   To be an eye.
Perceiver.
   God of the Kingdom
It is much longer than that, but those are the parts that most resonated with me. The notion that a film lifts our burden of existence by letting us be something else, someone else is a powerful idea.... but it ends with an even more powerful idea -- that watching a movie is to become God. All-seeing, all-knowing, but powerless to interfere. I've never heard anyone make this comparison before -- it simultaneously elevates the role of the viewer, and questions the role of God. Would would it mean if God felt as powerless, as frustrated, and sometimes as moved watching us as we do when we watch a movie?

Anyway, I certainly plan to seek out more Dana Levin poems... for her poetry has a beauty and a power and a whole living quality feels somewhat unique. I just hope it all isn't so gruesome!

Sunday, September 13, 2015

It's Kind of a Funny Story

Roger Ebert once suggested that "little boxes" on the movie poster with pictures of the cast members was usually a sign of a bad movie, but this must be the exception that proves the rule. It's a simple, clever, and charming story about a stressed out teen who checks himself into a psych ward and gets a dose of the realities of mental illness. It has some great performances in it, with Zach Galafianakis mostly stealing the show. Lots of other familiar actors and comedians are in it as well -- Jim Gaffigan, Aasif Mandvi, and Jeremy Davies (Dr. Faraday from Lost), for example. In short, it is fun, touching, a pleasing 13+ family film that has me curious to read the book.