Mstation Book Reviews
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Fri, 30 Jun 2006


Douglas Coupland, JPod, 
Bloomsbury large format paperback

ironic TV
paper CPU
                    concept rot
                         cellphone soul
                               cubicle heaven

note to Douglas Coupland (note to self: pronounced Coop-land):

That's pretty cool that after you saw it reported on the web that you collected meteorites that you actually started doing it.

I just read your new book, JPod. It's fun, no doubt, but the earlier Microserfs is a hard act to follow in many peoples' eyes and this is quite different in a few ways. It had to be different of course. Otherwise, what's the point?

I kind of wondered about one of the character's comments where he talks about that TV show set around the swimming pool where it was observed that when the writers ran out of ideas, they just made things very bizarre. Hmmm, we sure get into big time bizzarity pretty quickly in JPod, Douglas. I mean, you know, Mom and the dead biker? Dad and the girl? The Chinese boat people? Are you telling us something here?

Well, maybe the thought of all those cubicles where the games people hang out drove you to it. I can understand that although I guess cubicle workers might find this whole thing about a million times more interesting and cooly-wooly than _their_ cubicles. Fair enough. Geeks got some affirmation in Microserfs and now it's Cubicle Worker's time. They deserve it.

Another thing, Douglas, is that these people all seem a bit dumber. Not morons, but they seem to be fishing around in the pragmatic undergrowth for thoughts. I kind of miss the out of left field sweeps and the vision stuff from the right side of the Bell Curve.

Oh, and what's with the K-girl thing? There was Karla in Microserfs who was the main love interest (well, OK, for me) and this time it's Kaitlin. Maybe it's a sign of not having a life but I don't know one female whose name starts with "K". Hmmm, I just thought of one where the affectionate diminutive starts with a "K". And guess what? ... nevermind, the "K" thing is clearly my problem.

Anyway, I guess this is a different time. Maybe it will get better soon.

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Kiki Strike

Kirsten Miller, Kiki Strike: 
Inside the Shadow City, Bloomsbury

'what do you want to be when you grow up?'

And, having paraphrased the question a little, we meet the main protagonist, Kiki Strike.

The book is about a group of girls who band together to explore the Shadow City which lies seventy feet beneath the bustle of New York. It's a world of secret rooms, tunnels, trap doors and danger. It's also a world which must be protected against criminal elements. And then there's the treasure. Fun!

The happy band includes some wildly eccentric girls by current standards - the forger and computer hacker, the mistress of disguise, the fixer, and the teller of the tale - Ananka Fishbein, archivist, positive force, and social outcast pupil of an exclusive girl's school.

Yes, this happy band are all about thirteen and this is primarily a book for kids. Is it readable by adults in the way that Harry Potter is? It is probably better written for a start. It could well be something picked up over the summer when the urge for something light peaks, and where a sister or daughter has left it lying around.

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Steal this Computer

Wallace Wang, Steal This Computer Book 4.0, No Starch Press

This book is probably not for those who get upset about the iniquity of parts of the human race. It guides us nicely through the computer and internet underworld and as such it's a fairly good guide to a lot of the possible things that can go wrong.

It is not, however, a criminal's guidebook. The details are mostly left out so budding scipt kiddies will need to do further research.

The book starts off by looking at the early hackers, their attitude (same as now - explore!) and what they did. Then onto the PC pioneers, the internet, and what's happening today and what might be likely to happen in the future. There's also a section on locking down your computer. In this you can save yourself a fair bit of bother (heh, heh, except for getting it going) by using an Operating System like Plan 9.

Have fun.

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Japanese for Travellers

Katie Kitamura, Japanese for Travellers,
Hamish Hamilton/Penguin

You might think the title indicates a Japanese language tutorial of the sort that introduces you to a few basic words that get you around and fed. Konnichiwa! ... that sort of thing.

In fact it's a view of changes in Japanese culture that have resulted first from WWII and then the bursting of the economic bubble in the recent past. The most recent past has seen more prosperous times but that is not talked about. So, this is far from a lofty Heiean view of rural tranquility and poetic moments. Ah, reality, you say, that's what it's about, and it is about a slice of reality as seen by a Japanese American who has family ties in Japan and visits reasonably frequently.

The truth, of course, isn't just social disconnectedness caused by the end of jobs-for-life or lessened wealth, and which has caused disturbing behaviour in different sections of society. It isn't just saran gas in the subway, the disappeared elderly, or deserted Dutch-themed folies. It is all the other things as well: the rich cultural and artistic heritage, the everyday politeness (and phoey to those that say manners are just fake -- they are a mark of repect for fellow humans), and the collision of beauty and ugliness that sums up somewhere like Tokyo.

If you want to know about Japan, this is one part of the story and is useful because we in the West don't know that much about these aspects. You can cover the other part by reading something like Lost Japan by Alex Kerr.

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Masters of Doom

David Kushner, Masters of Doom,
Random House, Piatkus

This is about the guys that created Wolfenstein 3D, Doom, and Quake amongst other games. It's about John Carmack and John Romero and the changing supporting cast in a fluid world. It's also about the history of gaming, through Dungeons and Dragons and early computer games to the arcades and cash cows of later years. It is also very US-centric. There is no mention of contributions from other countries at all other than the occasional Brit (well, I think there was one) who ended up in the USA working in that environment.

It's a great book though. David Kushner is a long time gamer and he assembled the personal sagas of the two main characters from six years of interviews and research. You get to feel the joy of a small team working their guts out to get a game out the door, the pains of political infighting and idea clashes, the triumph of success, and the hollow feelings of things going to hell in a handbasket.

It also deals with the call for censorship (remember, Doom was incredibly violent and gory) and the after-affects of the Columbine massacre. My question is, do parents not have brains anymore? But I guess there are quite a few people that can't and won't take responsibility for anything. They deserve a totalitarian state.

Another thing this book highlights is that games can still be made by small teams and without a king's ransom for a budget ... just stay away from consoles until you've got a hit and the console makers come asking for a port.

In the early days, if you wanted to check up on what John Carmack was up to, you fingered This has now moved to a blog and you can catch it at ... John Romero's site is

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Ajax: Pragmatic Ajax

Gehtland, Galbraith, Almaer, Pragmatic Ajax:
A web 2.0 primer, The Pragmatic Programmers

You've probably heard Ajax mentioned before, and you might even be sick of hearing about Web 2.0 already seeing as how mentions seem to mostly come from marketing people and telcos.

Ajax is interesting in its own right though. The visable idea is that sections of a web page can be loaded without the whole page needing to be reloaded. This has been doable for ages by preloading material and using divs in HTML but the killer addition with Ajax is the ability to get material on the fly without preloading. The poster-app for this has been Google maps even though it wasn't actually done in Ajax.

This book takes you through what it's all about and starts off with a Google Maps-like app. It goes to look at different aspects of Ajax including the DOM model and using it in conjunction with the likes of PHP. It also looks at libraries and they are springing up all over the place with the latest being Spry from Adobe. Libraries will be the way that most people use Ajax but a knowledge and understanding of the foundations will serve those that want to be ahead of the curve

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