Mstation Book Reviews
pre Dec 04 reviews are here
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.
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.
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.
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.
David Kushner, Masters of Doom, Random House, Piatkus
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
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.
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.
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.
Ron Hale-Evans, Mind Performance Hacks Tips and Tools for Overclocking Your Brain, O'Reilly
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.
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.
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.
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.
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