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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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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