Mstation Book Reviews
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Thu, 01 Jun 2006

Rock Me Amadeus

Seb Hunter, Rock Me Amadeus: 
or how I learned to stop worrying and love Handel,
Penguin, Michael Joseph, large format paperback

With a collection of review comments like 'Hilarious', 'Wickedly funny', and 'Hilarious' twice more times, you are pre-primed to think it will be funny. Whether or not you do will depend a little about how you feel about dumbing-down and the idea that popular culture is actually a good and useful thing. Oh yes, and your attitude to the word 'fuck'.

So, if you disparage the culture of yobs, casseurs, and English soccer players then you will already know that this is not for you at all. Not that the author is any of these things (or at least admittedly) and there are signs of a significant amount of reading on the way through. The conciet of the thing is that the writer is a full-on rock 'n' roller converting himself to classical music.

There are quite a few historical snippets that can be enjoyed on the way through. The trouble is, if you don't already have a very good grounding in the history of music you're liable to be led for several circular walks in the bushes.

One case in point is that in sacred music, the protestants stood for rich complexity while the catholics were for monophonic drones? In fact there are historical tides which regularly sweep puritanically over complexity in sacred music no matter what the denomination. Another is value-judgement -- it's fine for him to dislike Lully, for example, but to state his dislike in pub-bore absolutes is just plain silly. Or the idea that the Proms are some sort of apex of classical music. Please! They might be pleasant enough but they are a fairly good example of dumbing-down as well.

Simplicity might be the pub bore's friend but, of course, history is rarely simple and getting a really good idea of anything that has happened in the past is actually quite hard to do and requires real work, and its dessemination requires more than sound bites.

What if I lighten up a little? There are funny bits, for sure.

(Baron K)

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Debian System

Review: The Debian System

Review: The Debian System

The Debian System
Concepts and Techniques

Martin F. Krafft, No Starch Press

One reason I buy fewer technical books these days than I did 15 years ago is the ease of finding technical information on the net. If googling on the program name and the error message finds me what I need to know to solve the problem I'm having, why should I spend $45 on a reference book, and have to locate the book, and use the index. And of course, often the book isn't up-to-date enough to have the information I need, isn't indexed well enough that I can find the solution to my problem.

There are of course technical books that explain concepts and are readable away from the computer screen, which are worth having. And if the reference material is well-linked to the explanation of the concepts, the book may well be better pedagogically than the help forum that google is going to find for me.

I do run a Debian system on my desktop, and I do occasionally have Debian system management problems. So far, google has usually solved them for me, but sometimes it's taken long enough, or been incomprehensible enough when I found the solution that I looked forward to having a reference book that might help.

So what I looked for when I got the review copy of this book was:

  • Can I find solutions to some of the problems I've had?
  • Does the book explain the concepts behind the solutions better than what I've been using?
The answer to these questions is "Usually", and "Sometimes." On the whole, it's a well-written book. There are whole sections about the Debian programming community that make sense to read away from the computer.

On the more specific stuff, the index seems a bit sparse (5 pages for a 600 page book), and doesn't have some fairly obvious entries. For instance, there's no entry for "audio", although if your problem with audio is that your user isn't part of the audio group, looking up "group" will give you a list of all the special groups, including "audio". Incidentally, the list of special groups is one of the things google hadn't ever found for me, and is quite useful.

As far as the general discussion goes, it's quite detailed in some ways and fairly offhand in others. For instance, there are several pages about how and why to go about becoming an official Debian Developer. However, Appendix B, "When is Debian the right choice?" didn't seem to me to really address the issue of what do I get from Debian that I can't or won't from running Ubuntu.

So, in summary, I would say that if you're feeling the need for a hard-copy reference book on Debian system management, this is a good book. If you want bedtime reading about the Debian project, it's a pretty good book. But you'll want to have google around, as well.

Laura Conrad
Last modified: Fri Apr 7 10:17:52 EDT 2006

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Web Design in a Nutshell

Jennifer Niederst Robbins, Web Design in a Nutshell:
A Desktop Quick Reference, O'Reilly

As usual with the Nutshell series this is something you can use as a memory helper or as a basis for further reading, that is to find out what you need to know more about.

The book covers most aspects and technologies of the web in a succint way that can be exactly what you want if you're trying to remember something about one thing or another ... HTML and XHTML, allowing for display sizes, graphics types, document structure, testing, CSS ... for instance. Chances are you'll do more than remember and learn something new as well, which is always good.

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Rules of Life

Richard Templar, The Rules of Life:
A personal code for Living a Better, Happier,
More Successful Life, Prentice Hall

We don't often look at self-help books but the title of this looked intriguing -- not that there's any arrogant feeling of perfection here. It's just that many of these sorts of books tend towards the soppy and simplistic, or get mystical in ways that are somewhat strange.

As this book is 219 pages of fairly large print, it has to be a little simplistic but in a way that's a design feature -- read the rule, take it in, consider, and then on to the next. Quite a few of the rules are ones you've heard before -- dress and groom properly for the day, the karma thing, have a plan, let go, and things like that.

Being reminded of such things can't be bad if you're in need of a boost (Yes, I do that!) and maybe there are lessons to be learnt as well. There is one nice story under the heading "If you can't say anything nice, don't say anything at all" where there is a subway strike and complete pandemonium with people curing and pushing and things bordering on the dangerous. A young mother says to her child "This is what we call an adventure". Such is life.

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Michael W. Lucas, PGP & GPG: email for the practical paranoid,
No Starch Press

You can check out Chapter eight of this book here if you like.

The book outlines what cryptography is, why you might like some, and a little histor,y to start with and then goes on to hold your hand with installations of PGP or GnuPG on Windows or Unix. It is all very clear and anybody who attempted to set up PGP in the early days would have been quite glad to have this guide.

The mysteries of things like key signing parties are also unravelled and the general reasons for doing things a certain way are elaborated on. Bad habits might not mean much if you're playing around, but it could mean life or death in some parts of the world.

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Mind Performance Hacks

Ron Hale-Evans, Mind Performance Hacks
Tips and Tools for Overclocking Your Brain,

There are quite a variety of things here, ranging from memory-aids to pulling yourself together to make a talk. You can even lean how to count to a million on the fingers of your hands using binary numbers. How geekly is that?

With quite a number of the things you might be tempted to ask whether they're just parlour tricks without any real utility. Or just a bit of fun. Maybe there are some after dinner games here for people who do that sort of thing. Utility can take many forms after all.

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Letters to a young mathematician

Ian Stewart, Letters to a Young Mathematician,
Basic Books

Ian Stewart is a professor of mathematics at Warwick University in the UK and was formerly a Scientific American columnist. In this book he adresses a series of letters to a young woman who, at first, is asking about becoming a mathematician and, later, while at university, needs some mentoring.

Questions such as 'what is mathematics?' and "what is it good for?' are answered at length in a plainly understandable language and in terms that are sometimes slightly ingenious. The author loves his subject and the joy of it percolates through every word he says.

Obviously, people thinking of taking up mathematics seriously could benefit from this book but also those who are forever decrying higher learning of any sort as being impractical and a waste of time -- not that they will read it.

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Jane's Addiction paperback

Brendan Mullen, Whores: an oral biography of
Jane's Addiction, Da Capo

We've already reviewed this book so this is just an announcement that it is now available in paperback.

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iPod and iTunes Manual

J.D. Biersdorfer Ed. David Pogue, Missing Manual:
iPod and iTunes, Pogue Press O'Reilly

Another in the Missing Manual series, and seeing as how manuals are getting to be thin on the ground, there should be no end to it! This volume deals with the iPod and the music library app iTunes.

It takes you through both the hardware and software in a detailed way and explains what pretty much everything is and does. There are also sections to do with add-ons and troubleshooting so there is something for the non-beginner as well.

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Write Great Code

Randall Hyde, Write Great Code Vol. 2
Thinking low-level, writing high-level,
 No Starch Press

You might remember Randall Hyde's book about assembler that was reviewed here a while back. Here we go higher level to some extent. The idea is that in order to write great code you need to know and understand what's happening with the compiler. How can you know if code is somewhere near optimal without such information? And the fact is that even though we have multi-GHz CPU's these days and most likely a ton of RAM (we have to just to run the behemoth operating systems) then this problem isn't worth worrying about. It is, of course, worth worrying about.

Under chapter headings like Thinking Low-Level, Writing High Level; 80x86 and PowerPC Assembly for the HLL Programmer; Compiler Operation and Code Generation, plus an examination of control structures and data types, you get a very detailed course in how to get down and get fast. And you get it by being down in the practical detail

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