The Pragmatic Programmer

March 2nd, 2008 § 2 comments § permalink

This is another book about software as a craft but written in a style that’s much more interesting and accessible. Dave Thomas and Andy Hunt have a lot of experience in the field and it shows.

Most of the advice given is pretty obvious but every programmer should remind himself now and them of what’s important to his programming career. This book does exactly that.

Most of the advice provided in the book is in those areas where programmers have more trouble–like communication and dealing with managers. That’s very necessary, considering how much more integrated progamming has become today, and more so in Agile contexts where outside interaction is paramount. But there is also a lot of practical advice about the best way to prototype, how to handle the problem domain in terms of languages choice and lots of similar subjects.

Also, reading this book reminds me again of how bad Software Craftsmanship was. McBreen really sounds like he read this book, had a couple of nice insights and decided to write an entire book on what should have been an article or an essay.

Of course, two of the most interesting parts of the books are the challenges and exercises. The challenges are questions about the text just read, leading the reader to expand his comprehension and think about the way what has been just learned applies to his work. The exercises, on the other hand, are more about practicing the knowledge in code. Both are good tools to make sure the knowledge acquired in fixed into the reader’s memory.

Of course, the book is not without flaws although many of them may be attributed to the time in which it was written. For example, there is a tendency in the text to present Java and its related technologies as leading the way to the future. But those are small problems in a otherwise great book.

The ending was a little slow, as well, in face of everything that was already said but I would encourage readers to stick with the book. Even in the slow chapters there a lot of food for thought.

All in all, this is a practical and current book that will benefit every programmer reading it. Even programmers with a lot of experience will learn something or at least be reminded of things they should be doing and may not be doing right now. I strongly recommend it.

Blindsight

January 7th, 2007 § 0 comments § permalink

I just finished reading Blindsight, from Peter Watts. I found the book via a very positive indication from Boing Boing, which comments about the book’s release under a CC license due, in part, to the fact that the book was selling way to fast.

I basically could not stop reading the book. It had been quite long since I read something as mind-boggling and mind-expanding. Blindsight is packed with new ideas and concepts. Watts has an impressive command of both science and philosophy, and he’s not afraid to show it. Many of the questions he raises in Blindsight are the kind that make your brain go into overdrive for a couple days.

One of the great themes in the book is the distinction between being sentient and being intelligent, with a sub-theme around the real need of the former for long term survival. Watts presents strong arguments for each case, allowing readers to take their own conclusions. Within this theme, other questions like the existence of free-will, what is really sensory perception, and many other are interleaved in a work that would easily pass for a philosophy book–albeit one dealing with vampires as well.

It’s quite obvious by now that I strongly recommend Blindsight. Considering it’s license, it would be criminal not too as well. The other two books by Peter Watts are already in my reading list.

Neverwhere

June 22nd, 2005 § 2 comments § permalink

As I had mentioned in a previous entry, it didn’t take me long to buy Neil Gaiman’s Neverwhere. As I had wrote too, American Gods was better than it.

It’s not that American Gods is better written than Neverwhere. It’s more that Neverwhere seems to be an introduction or a first attempt to what would be American Gods later. Both stories have so much in common that reading them in such a short time span made me pay more attention to some of the flaws of the book than I would had otherwise.

That said, Neverwhere is a good book. Neil Gaiman once again shows his talent as a teller of modern fairy tales, whose magic is explicit in every page. It’s impossible not to be fascinated and surprised at the situations and characters Gaiman paints in the pages of Neverwhere. Even being a much smaller book than American Gods, it achieves the same verisimilitude of the latter in terms of world-building.

Nevewhere tells the story of Richard Mayhew, and Englishman who leaves the country for a job in London, searching for a better life. He succeeded and his quiet life in London seems to be heading to the right place: he has a good job, the perfect fiancée, and everything is going well. Until, in a fateful night, he finds a girl lying on the sidewalk near his home. She is hurt and afraid, and he helps her, which transforms his whole life. Suddenly, nobody seems to know — or even see — him, except for the mysterious inhabitants of another London, London Below. Recruited for a cause in which he doesn’t believe, Mayhew needs to learn to deal with the dangerous world of which he’s part now if he expects to survive the day.

In his London Below, Gaiman creates a convincing vision of London’s underworld: an extraordinary place filled with mythical creatures whose lives flow at the margins of London Above. As with other famous cities of literature, London Below is complex and multifaceted, with surprised sprouting from every dark corner. Obviously, a London reader will see much more than I saw, but Gaiman is careful enough to make most of the references readily understandable in the international version of the book.

After I had read the book, I wanted to see the TV series in which it was based but I don’t think that will happen anytime soon. Even being for a different medium, such visual version would have been interesting to see.

With another of Gaiman’s books in my collection, it’s time to buy Coraline, which I’ll do as soon as I finished the other books I’m reading now. Judging by everything I read from Gaiman until, I won’t be disappointed.

American Gods

May 30th, 2005 § 1 comment § permalink

Neil Gaiman is one of those writers whose books I can’t seem to be able to put down when I start reading them. He is probably more famous for his graphic novels (Sandman) than for his books, but the books are what attracted me in first place. The few of his graphics novels I’ve skimmed didn’t impress much. But that is probably because I’m not much into comics anyway.

A couple weeks ago, I finished reading his American Gods, a fascinating story of myth and fantasy that kept spellbound from the first page to the last one.

From Gaiman’s I had previously read Stardust, which is a charming fairy tales, guaranteed to please both kids and grown-ups — although, if you are thinking about reading it for your kids, consider yourself warned about the (almost) explicit sex scene at the beginning of the book, which I can’t understand it’s there since nowhere else in the book something like it is repeated.

When I decided to buy another of his books, I had to choose between Neverwhere and American Gods. I decided for the latter, and although I will soon buy the former, I’m almost sure American Gods will prove itself superior, especially considering what I’ve read about both books.

I won’t spoil anybody’s experience of the book, telling to much about it. It’s enough to say that that main character gets himself thrown in the midst of a struggle between the old gods of mankind (Norse, Russian, Irish, Egyptian, and pretty much all of the Old Word panteon) and the new gods of our modern age (media, money, technology, and the mysterious Agency — that exists because everybody thinks so). The battle will happen at the heart of America, but nothing is what it really seems. Gaiman takes the reader to a fascinating exploration of the American culture in the eyes of a European, an exploration that gets even more interesting when read by someone who’s neither American nor European.

To lover of mythology, the book is a must. Internal references and surprised multiply themselves in every page, including incredible word games that are a joy to decode.

Gaiman is also able to give each character a unique voice that nicely complements their profiles. From Shadow, the main character — that gets out of prison to find his wife was killed in a car accident but didn’t stay quite dead, and returns to visit him, beginning a strange relationship that is intrinsically tied with the book’s main plot — to old Wednesday, his mysterious employer that hides secrets in each of his revelation, memorable characters fill every page of the book.

It’s a book to read and read again, just for the pleasure of a well-told yarn.

The Scar

April 13th, 2005 § Comments Off on The Scar § permalink

Last week, I finished reading The Scar, another stunning book by China Miéville, the second in his series taking placing on the world of Bas-Lag, specifically connected to the city or people belonging to the City State of New Crobuzon.

Like the first book — Perdido Street Station — this second book is hard to describe. Once more, Miéville takes the reader in an impressive voyage around a magnificently built world, inhabited by characters that vary from the fascinating to the repellent, but all of them interesting.

Although related to Perdido Street Station by way of a character and the mention of some events, the book tells a substantially different story and takes place entirely outside of New Crobuzon.

The book begins with Bellis Coldwine, a New Crobuzon linguist, fleeing the city because she’s being sought after by the militia that believes she’s somehow involved or at least knows something about the events described in the first book — it later turns out she a former love of Isaac Dan der Grimnebulin, the brilliant scientist whose insatiable curiosity brought about the chaos depicted in Perdido Street Station. She then gets on a ship heading to a remote colony hoping to survive enough time there until she can return to the city.

She never gets there, however, as the ship in which she’s traveling is captured by pirates; the ship’s superior officers executed; and the rest of the passengers, prisoners, and crew taken as captives to Armada, a huge, floating pirate city built with the hulls of captured ships, and divided in sections ruled by different powers, the most prominent of those being the mysterious Lovers. In the city, all captives are set free, given work, and integrated to the city, made equal regardless of their previous lives. But they will never leave, and to show disloyalty is death. Bellis, however, won’t accept the thought of never returning to her home again, and will embark on a long attempt to flee the city that will expose her to deep secrets and risks beyond imagining.

Once again, Miéville tackles on profound themes, some previously explored, new ones being aptly exposed in the characters used and the situations created. Also, much as New Crobuzon, Armada is a character by itself, with its own mesmerizing and complex. Miéville dominates the genre’s stylistic traditions, immersing the reader in a literary experience few times achieved in recent fantasy. The only problem with the book is the slight exaggeration in the language used by some characters, where Miéville voice overrides the characters’ voices, although that doesn’t managed to cripple the passages in which it happens.

After those two books, Miéville has gained a permanent place among my favorite fiction writers, rivaling Stephen R. Donaldson and Neal Stephenson in sheer literally vigor. As soon as I finish the books I accumulated in the past few weeks, I’ll buy his next book, Iron Council, which returns to New Crobuzon decades later. Judging from the first two, Iron Council will be another excellent book.

Calculating God

January 18th, 2005 § Comments Off on Calculating God § permalink

An alien shuttle lands in front of an important museum, located in Toronto. Out comes the proverbial alien. However, instead of asking to speak with the local authorities, taking over the world, or something like that, the alien wants to see a paleontologist. The visitor’s objective? Complement the information demonstrating the ways through which Gods acts in the Universe.

This is the premise behind Calculating God, by Robert J. Sawyer, one of the most acclaimed science fiction writers today. Unfortunately, given the genre, Sawyer’s books are not easily found here in Brazil. This is the first book I’ve ever read by him, and it’s certainly an excellent piece of work.

The book starts with the aforementioned scene. Aliens from two different worlds, in a joint mission, reveal themselves to Earth, after observing the planet for a long time. One of them, Hollus, seeks the help of a local paleontologist to find more evidence of the methods that God uses to exert his will in the Universe. According to Hollus, the existence of God is a scientific fact that can be easily deducted from the observation of the natural world. In fact, Hollus reasons that the objective of modern science is to find why God works the way he does.

The paleontologist that Hollus meets, Thomas Jericho, is a rationalist who prides himself in the fact that there’s no room for faith in his world. He is surprised to discover that Hollus doesn’t consider the question of the existence of God a matter of faith, but of science, of tangible facts. The book follows the development of the relationship between Hollus and Jericho as they confront their worldviews and talk about issues ranging from theology to quantum mechanics, and from biology to philosophy. Jericho, as we find in the first pages, is terminally ill, with only one year of life left to him — a situation reminiscent of Carl Sagan’s life. That is also forcing him to consider his own life in the light of what Hollus has told him.

Far from banalizing the issue, Calculating God seeks to think seriously of the questions involved, focusing of scientific proof. As Hollus says in the first chapter, nothing is outside the scope of science, not even God’s existence. That makes the book a long discussion about the subject, with relatively little action. However, this narrative option is masterfully realized, and the book is able to keep the reader’s attention from beginning to end.

As a Christian, I have a definite opinion about the subject, but I liked the way Sawyer presented his arguments. In fact, I agree with much of what he says. The book entertains, and doesn’t shy away from the difficulty of the questions being asked. Although entertaining its readers is the book’s primary goal, it will certainly lead its readers to think about what they believe with regards to God.

In short, Calculating God is a very recommended reading.

The Third Millennium

December 28th, 2004 § Comments Off on The Third Millennium § permalink

Revisiting books you have read and liked a long time ago is always a trick business. Sometimes, what you found touching and noteworthy in your first reading becomes banal and uninteresting the next time you read the book again. Sometimes, the work can still hold your attention, but you find weaknesses in it that you didn’t perceive before.

A couple days ago I finished rereading The Third Millennium, by José Maria Domenech. As I told in a previous entry, I came across this book recently after not thinking about it for more than ten years. It was mentioned a short time ago in a science fiction list I’m subscribed to, and when I visited a bookstore in the next day, I found it in the used books section, in very good condition, even though it’s somewhat rare.

As I also said in that previous entry, this book was one of the first science fiction books I read, which contributed for my taking a liking for the genre. I was about nine or ten years old when I read it for the first time (if memory serves me right) and I already had a profound interest for anything related to science, especially where space were concerned. This book showed me it was possible to have science and adventure in the same pages. It broadened my literary horizons, and imbued me with the will to tell my own stories. I even wrote some short stories based on the book, and on ideas it provided me — stories which, unfortunately, I didn’t keep.

The book caused such an impression on me that I remembered its main storyline for all those years, even though I couldn’t remember specifics like the names of the characters, for example. Reading the book again, I was surprised to see how much I remembered of the story, and how little I remembered of the philosophy defended by the book. Probably because I was still too young when I read it to care about such things.

The Third Millennium is a story written to present a particular viewpoint about the evolution of the human society in the tradition of works like Brave New World, Island, Walden II, and Utopia. It’s not on a par with those works in terms of literary value, but has a similar style.

The book offers an optimistic vision of the future, although it starts with the somber note of a nuclear holocaust, which, ironically, is the author’s solution to purge humanity of his destructive impulses. The book relies heavily on Malthusian theories to present its view of a perfect society.

Written in 1972, it’s considerably dated. The story begins with the first human spaceship able to traverse interstellar distances waiting for the beginning of its first mission, which, strangely, is the colonization of Mars. On the verge of The Third Millennium, the ship is keeping a silent watch until the time for leaving comes. Then, the worst happens, and the Earth is destroyed in the flames of a nuclear holocaust. The ship’s crew, forced to change their plans, decides to explore the galaxy while they wait for the time when Earth can be colonized again. When the ship returns, after a thousand-year journey, surprises lie ahead for its crew.

It’s not an original story, and it’s merit lies not on the plot but on the discussion of the problems the world was facing at the time and the possibilities science was beginning to explore to solve those problems.

The book has three main parts. The chapters are short, usually two or three pages long. Exposition is a bit heavy, which is a big failing of the book. Most dialogues are just an excuse to expose some scientific or social considerations, which the characters would never need. Amusingly enough, the part of the book I remembered best — the interstellar journey — takes up mere four chapters, adding up to no more than ten pages;

The first part of the book recounts the events leading to the construction of the ship in which most of the action happens, and the technological advances that made its construction possible. The second part describes the nuclear hecatomb and the ship’s journey to the stars. The final part narrates the return of the ship, and the surprises waiting for the crew on Earth. In all parts, Domenech’s theories are explored.

In this rereading, I found that I don’t agree with most of the theories the author defends, even discounting the changes in society that happened meanwhile.

Domenech’s dream is of a society where people are genetically selected to breed and technologically controlled, something that’s too close to Brave New World to my linking. The author splits up humanity in two distinct classes, implying only those with a superior genetic stock should be allowed to breed.

Another thing that I didn’t like about the book is the role it attributes to women. Female characters appear in the book as mere supporting players, whose single object is making the male characters comfortable. In the ship, there are three couples besides the commander, who’s single. The women in the ship (whose scientific qualifications are only briefly mentioned) act as simple “housewives” (or, as Domenech puts its, “hostess”) who keep the ship clean, the male crew fed, and only occasionally helping in scientific duties.

The technological advances predicted by Domenech — hibernation, magnetic shielding, and artificial intelligence — are still in the future. Although his imagined society is heavily dependent on technology to function, Domenech displays a deep distrust for technology. For example, in the book, three artificial intelligences share the command of the ship, being played one against the other, so to speak, to keep them from taking control of the ship from their human masters.

There are other things I didn’t like, but it’s not my interest to make an exhaustive analysis of the book. Despite those problems, I still like the book. The story is interesting, and I believe that, even with its failures and dated technology, it has some good qualities. The questions explored in the book were important when it was written, and are still significant. Although I don’t like the solutions Domenech proposes, the discussion is interesting.

After criticizing the book so much, I don’t believe anyone will want to read it, even if it could be easily found. Anyway, as one of the few science fiction books published in Brazil, it may still be worth a look.

His Dark Materials

December 18th, 2004 § Comments Off on His Dark Materials § permalink

His Dark Materials is Philip Pullman‘s quite imaginative, but ultimately disappointing, trilogy.

I first read about Pullman at Amazon. I was browsing the site for some fantasy books I wanted to buy, and a recommendation in one of the pages pointed to the first book of the trilogy, The Golden Compass (or Northern Lights, as it’s called in its United Kingdom editions).

I read the book’s summary, and immediately lost interest in it. Firstly, the main character is a child, something that rarely engages my interest these days. With the exception of some classics, most of the stories where the protagonist is too young tend to be below the level of story realization I expect. Secondly, another character was an armored bear. I don’t know why, but it occurred to me at that moment that I would never read a book with an armored bear as a character. I was wrong, but it seemed to me too ridiculous a thing at the time. The book looked like an overrated fairy tale.

Time went by, and I forgot about the books. One of the blogs I read briefly mentioned the book some time later, talking — guess what — about the armored bear. But I had forgotten about the books, and only remembered the mention later when I started to read the books.

When I started buying e-books at Fictionwise, I began a wish list of the ones I wanted to buy in the future. And, once again, I came across Pullman’s work, which, if I’m not mistaken, was being offered at a discounted price at the time. For some motive, this time my opinion of the books changed. The summary at Fictionwise presented a different version of the books, much more interesting, and didn’t mention any armored bears. I bought the books.

When I finished the other books I was reading in the Palm, I downloaded the books from Fictionwise and synced them to the Palm. Even so, it took me some time to start reading. I was afraid I would not like the books. Finally, I decided to give them a go, and began the first book.

I got hooked in the first sentence. For a fantasy work, that sentence is simply perfect. As I progressed though the book I realized my first opinion about it had been completely wrong. The main character, Lyra, while being a child, is so masterfully realized that you can’t help but root for her. The secondary characters are also very interesting. And — I know this is ironic — the armored bears turned out to be fascinating characters as well. » Read the rest of this entry «

In the queue

December 14th, 2004 § Comments Off on In the queue § permalink

More books in my end-of-year reading list:

Tomorrow Now, by Bruce Sterling
This is the first book by Bruce Sterling that I’ll read. I usually don’t read books attempt to predict the near future because they quickly become out of date, but I’m giving Sterling a try considering the quality of his articles, and his standing in the science fiction community.
The Stand, by Stephen King
I saw parts of the miniseries once, but never read the book. The story seems to be very interesting.
Misery, by Stephen King
Recommended by a friend of mine. The story seems interesting too. I hope it’s not one of King’s cliché stories.
The Third Millennium, by José Maria Domenech
A serendipitous finding: I read this book more than fifteen years ago, and didn’t even remember it existed anymore. A couple weeks ago, someone mentioned it in a science fiction mailing list I’m subscribed to. In the next day, I went to a used bookstore just to take a look at the selections there, not quite remembering it. In an amazing coincidence, it was the first book I found in the science fiction section. This book is one of the first books I ever read in that genre. I was pretty young at the time, and didn’t know there existed adventure books (as I thought about them) with science as the main component. I got hooked, and never stopped reading the genre. The book also inspired me to write my own fiction.
A Strange Valley, de Darrell Bain
I bought this book before I had read Darwin’s Radio and Darwin’s Children, and had not realized they had similar stories (at least, judging by what the cover says). I will give it a try anyway.
The Case for Christ, de Lee Strobel
A journalist analyses the evidence for Jesus.
The Scar, de China Miéville
This book is an indirect sequel to Perdido Street Station. Must not start reading now. I have no time. Must not start reading now. I have…
Selected Tales, de Edgar Allan Poe
I read many of Poe’s tales before, but this selection has some that are new to me. Poe is really a master writer.
Moby Dick, de Herman Melville
Decided to read it again. The last time I read it, I was quite young, and I don’t remember much about the book anymore.

Perdido Street Station

December 3rd, 2004 § Comments Off on Perdido Street Station § permalink

Some books leave such a lasting impression on the reader that he or she can’t help but think about them for days afterwards. Perdido Street Station, by China Miéville, is one of the books that caused this effect on me. I finished reading it a few weeks ago but I’m still thinking occasionally about the situations, characters, and possibilities described or suggest by the book.

Any attempt to fit Perdido Street Station into a specific genre is bound to be difficult. The author himself categorizes it as weird fantasy, but I think this is an almost meaningless label. All fantasy (and, by extension, all fantastical literature) must be weird in my opinion. It must instigate a sense of wonder in the readers, leaving them spellbound to the world created by the author and taking them to unexplored frontiers. Weird fantasy doesn’t describe the richness of such books. Whatever category Miéville’s book does fit in, however, one thing is sure: it takes it to the most extreme genre boundaries, presenting readers with one of the best fantastical worlds ever created, populated with wonderful and complex creatures whose lives and journeys compel the readers to keep turning the pages, attracted and repelled by them at the same time. » Read the rest of this entry «

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