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Summer Reading

Every now and then I do a book review or two for the blog, people seem to like them and as it is the summer holildays, I’ve decided to give you an insight as to what I am reading or have read on holiday. It’s the normal mixed back of books; some old, some new, some best-sellers, some not. I only tend to write about books I like which is why my book reviews tend to be nearly entirely positive.

So here goes, some holiday reading for you all.

At school, I hated history and dropped it as a subject as soon as possible; it might have been the way it was taught or perhaps it was that the eras studied just were not those that I was interested in; these days though I read a lot of history books, it tends to be mostly early history but not entirely so. I’ve recently become more interested in European history and the creation of modern Europe; one of those figures which looms large is Lenin, a monster and tyrant in the West’s eyes and mythologised in the Soviet Russia. The collapse of the Soviet Union opened previously sealed records and has allowed Robert Service to re-appraise the life of Lenin and the influences which him; from his early upbringing and education to the execution of his elder brother Alexander, Lenin’s early life is brought to life and the monster is humanised. Yet as Vladimir Ilich Ulyanov becomes Lenin (Lenin was his revolutionary name), you see the man become the monster. If there is any criticism to be made of the book, it tends to ignore some of the major events such as the First World War and focuses on Lenin the man but as a biography it paints a picture of Lenin beyond the normal mythology, Robert Service’s Lenin: A Biography may not be the cheeriest summer read but I found it really interesting and learnt a lot.

The Black Jacobins by the great Trinidadian writer CLR James is the history of the Hatian Revolution of 1791-1804, especially considered against the background of the French Revolution (Haiti was ruled by the French), it mainly focuses on the black leader Toussaint L’Ouverture who rose from slavery to a hero of the Haitian revolution and a tragic one at that. A criticism oft laid at the book is that it is very partisan and idealistic but this does not prevent it from being an easy read and an important parallel to one of the key developments in European history.

The Library Book is a collection of pieces on the importance of libraries from short stories to personal testimony by such luminaries as Stephen Fry, Alan Bennet, Seth Godin and many more. At a time when many feel that libraries are now not necessary with everything online, this collection gives many reasons why we still need libraries. A library is more than just a collection of books, just as a book is more than just a collection of words; if you love books and libraries, this book is great fun.

It’s odd that I have read many of George R.R Martin’s books; I was a great fan of the Wild-Cards series which was editted by him, I also loved Windhaven and have read many of his short stories but I had never read any of A Song of Ice and Fire (The Game of Thrones) books, they had just passed me by and I had probably discounted them as more Tolkien fantasy wannabe. Well, more fool me, I’ve been racing through them this summer and have found them compelling, complex, exciting, violent and witty. Late to the party I know but I very pleased I picked them up. Full of strong characters, both male and female; flawed but heroic and certainly not Tolkien like at all. Although I have linked the boxed set, I’d buy them on Kindle if I were you; they’re very long so much easier to carry around on the Kindle. Saves you carrying around two heavy books if you are getting close to the end of one.

REST APIs and interacting with services via them are becoming an increasingly important part of the tech landscape; even humble infrastructure bods like myself can’t avoid them any more. The REST API Design Handbook by George Reese is great short introduction on how you go about designing a REST API and I wish that many of my developer friends would read it; it would make my life and theirs a lot simpler. I continue to see horrible things done with SOAP which would work so much better with a RESTful implementation that I feel that this should be compulsory reading before you decide to do anything with SOAP. And at only 90 pages or so, there’s no excuse for not reading it.

Fifty Shades of Grey is not a book I have read this summer and really have no intention in reading, although I gather it makes for great amusement when read aloud but if you want something similar but better written (although I can’t really say that not having read 50SoG), try The Sleeping Beauty Trilogy by Anne Rice writing as A.N. Roquelaure. Of course it is adult, so if you are neither adult or a possessor of an open mind, give it a miss.

Bod’s Stuff of the Year

It’s bit late but if you still have some Christmas shopping to do, here’s a few ideas of things I’ve liked over the past twelve months.

Anyway, hopefully there are a few ideas for late Christmas presents or even some New Year’s retail therapy. Do your bit for the economy and spend, spend, spend!

Gadget of the Year

Don’t care which model you get but Amazon’s e-reader is probably the must have for any geek. It slips into a large coat pocket and you can have your favourite books with you where-ever you are. The only problem with it is that it is far too easy to buy books and you will find yourself spending more than you used to on books. But for me, it’s my favourite gadget.

Geek-out Extravaganza

It might be expensive and completely indulgent but if you are a Star Wars nut; then Star Wars: The Blueprints is a must have. The packaging is gorgeous and the content, especially from the filming of the original series, is sublime. Treat yourself, you’ll love it. Just hide the receipt!

Games(s) of the Year

I am already loosing sleep to Star Wars: The Old Republic (had a great gaming session with Storagezilla) but my Game of the Year is not really a game but a collection of games; can I recommend that you all support the Indie Games industry and especially Humble Bundle, some fun games at pocket money prices and you get to support independent games companies and charity at the same time.  There are other indie games bundles out there, it’s worth keeping an eye out for them.

Fiction Book of the Year

There’s been some great fiction this year, Neal Stephenson told a cracking tale in Reamde and really hit form again; William Gibson’s Zero History was full of ideas and great fun but for me, a new City Watch tale from Terry Pratchett was always going to be the highlight. Snuff takes Captain Vimes into the country and out of his beloved city, as he struggles with the duties of Lord of the Manor, he stumbles into a murder. The ensuing tale is Pratchett at his best.

Non-Fiction Book of the Year

The sad and expected demise of Steve Jobs lead to the early release of Steve Jobs: The Exclusive Biography. I think it is a credit to Steve and his family that this rounded picture of him was allowed. A deeply flawed genius; this book does not shy away from the flaws whilst painting the picture of the driven genius. If you love Apple or even if you hate Apple, it’s worth reading and perhaps reflecting on the bit of Steve which is in us all, certainly Biography of the Year. Pencil Me In: A Journey in the Fight for Graphite is a allegorical tale of technology introduction in education; I think many of my readers will both find relevant and fun [especially recommended to Chuck Hollis and Matthew Yeager].

But my non-fiction book of the year is The Party: The Secret World of China’s Communist Rulers: 1.3 Billion People, 1 Secret Regime; as power continues to move eastwards and China continues its rise to become the dominant economic super-power, this book details how China has pulled itself out of the doldrums and transform its economy. Anecdotes are well used to demonstrate ideas and why China will not transform into a Western-style democracy any time soon.

Album of the Year

I’ve enjoyed House Of Cards by Emily Baker, Suck It And See by Arctic Monkeys and especially enjoyed the collaboration between Lou Reed and Metallica in the form of Lulu. The return of Atari Teenage Riot’s aural assault was a welcome return by the Teutonic terrors, Is This Hyperreal?.

Still, I have to agree with the Mercury Music Prize panel and make PJ Harvey’s Let England Shake my stand-out album of the year. As English as it gets, PJ’s anger and passion for our homeland’s current place in the world is a powerful piece from an artist who never fails to push our buttons.

Computer Component of the Year

SSD, get one! It changes your desktop experience, I use the Crucial variations but do your research and transform your desktop computer.

More Books

Every now and then I like to post some short reviews of books I’ve enjoyed; there’s no particular theme, I generally just love books and read just about everything. So here are a handful of books that I’ve enjoyed recently.

Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal?; Jeanette Winterson’s first novel, Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit was an award winning first novel when it was published 1985, pretty much everyone knows that it was semi-autobiographical but now Jeanette Wintersone has gone back and written the real story. And what everyone assumed was exaggerated for effect actually turn out to be true or actually they put a more cheery gloss than what was the lonely reality.

Stories of  a mother who refused to enter Marks and Spencer announcing that ‘The Jews Killed Christ’ manage to evoke laughter,disbelief and sadness all at the same time. Never self-pitying but often painfully honest, the book still manages to be amazingly easy to read. I suspect it would make a great Boxing Day tonic to the sometimes cloying sentimentality of Christmas TV.

And now for something completely different

The Queen’s Agent: Francis Walsingham at the Court of Elizabeth I; Francis Walsingham is often credited with creating the English secret service and the first great English spymaster.  To be honest, there are few good books about him and I don’t think there is one which places him so well in the period.

Elizabethan England was a fragile place; full tumult and change, the divide between Protestant and Catholic, the tensions between a fierce loyalty to both crown and faith are brought to life without ever coming down in favour of either side.

For a scholarly book, it is fascinating and entertaining;  reminding me of John Julius Norwich’s Byzantium histories in style; both learned and witty…certainly worth a read.

Peter Hamilton is famous for writing tomes; books that you could build a house with but he is also an accomplished writer of short stories; Manhattan in Reverse is his second collection of short stories covering a variety of settings from an alternate  19th century Oxford to the more familiar setting of his Commonwealth novels.

It includes a new Paula Myo story which gives the book its title which is why many people will pick it up but bizarrely it omits his  award-winning short story ‘The Suspect Genome’ which features Greg Mandel from his early trilogy. Still, it’s a nice collection of his short stories and proves that he doesn’t actually need 1000+ pages to tell a good story and that he can demonstrate some kind of restraint!

So there you go; three very different books for you to try!


Sometime in the past couple of years, someone crept into Neal Stephenson’s bedroom and whispered into his ear

‘When you wake up, you are going write a book which will read like a techno-thriller and end like an extended scene from Modern Warfare; it will be an FPS in book form’

And so he woke up and started to write Reamde; this is not classic Stephenson, this is not a big ideas book, this book is designed to make you smile as it takes you on a ride through downtown China, the wilds of Canada and legendary landscape of T’Rain!

T”Rain? T’Rain is a MMORPG world where gold-farming is encouraged and where livings can be made; big money is possible and real world transactions can happen. So when a virus writer exploits that and demands a ransom to be paid in game to recover from the effects of a virus; all hell breaks loose and when the wrong laptop is infected…the story really starts.

But if you are a Stephenson fan and come expecting a typical Stephenson novel, you are going to be disappointed; if you come looking for new ideas (beyond that of T’Rain, which is a clever evolution of MMORPG), come looking for challenges and to learn.


If you put that all to one side and come looking a novel told at movie pace with a gamer’s fascination for hardware of all sorts; this is the novel for you!!

Do REAMDE! It’s fun!

Kindling the Fire

Obviously many people are going to use the same very obvious pun but hell, I’m not going to apologise. Amazon have finally launched their tablet and at first glance it does appear to be a bit of a rush job to be honest; no 3G, no GPS, no cameras and no microphone. This not an iPad 2 replacement; if you still want a iPad, you are probably going to buy an iPad and if you already have an iPad, you will probably wait another six months for the iPad 3.

And it’s not really a Kindle eReader replacement; yes, they’ve refreshed that range and they look nice but the Fire isn’t an eReader. Colour e-Ink is a year or two away for a consumer device and that’s probably the thing which will convince me to change away from my Kindle Keyboard 3G.

Amazon know people love their Apple stuff and to try to compete with this visceral and illogical love is madness; what Amazon know is that people want to consume content quickly and easily via many devices. They also know how to use the Amazon experience to encourage stickiness and further business; I don’t think that the ‘Amazon Recommends’ algorithms are that great but I do find myself adding things to my basket which it recommends on a disturbingly frequent basis.

This is going to give Apple a real headache over time; how many iPads are only used for content consumption? How many people really use video-chat?

Yes, a camera and a microphone would be nice but I suspect that’s not a show stopper for most people; if you are in the market for a tablet, you most likely already have a smart phone with a pretty decent camera.

If the Kindle Fire allows me to use my Audible library and my Kindle library in a seamless way, that’d be a big win. And as long as it runs Spotify, that’s my music sorted for the time being.

Still, that said; I’m probably not going to rush out and buy a Fire….well not for myself, there’s a ten year old who would love one. Of course there is a problem with this, when the inevitable Fire-2 comes out with the bells and whistles, she’s going to want one and I don’t want to be lumbered with a second rate bit of kit.

Now if Amazon were really clever; they should go and buy OnLive; a tablet which came with an OnLive subscription, that’d give everyone a headache.

Your media and your life is moving to the Cloud….its going to get harder and harder to resist.

Seven Languages in Seven Weeks..

I keep meaning to start some kind of coding again; I’m not really sure but I think I should. I’ve not donated to an open-source project in years and I feel a little guilty. Still I’m not really that great a coder, I like to dive in and out. So I came across Seven Languages in Seven Weeks and it seems the ideal book for a dilettante like myself.

Published by the Pragmatic Bookshelf, it aims to give you an taste of

  • Ruby
  • Io
  • Prolog
  • Scala
  • Erlang
  • Clojure
  • Haskell

By necessity, each section is fairly brief and actually split into three days; so you could do Seven languages in Three Weeks if you wanted.

So far, I’ve got through the three days of Ruby and I must say that it does give you just enough of a taste of language for you to start to write simple code and might even be able to achieve something useful.

The end of chapter exercises are a mix of practical programming exercises but also getting to do your own research. For example, the book tells you where to get the languages from but it does not waste paper telling you how to install them. You are expected to be competent enough to figure this out for yourself.

I would say that if you already have some coding experience and are willing to use Google; you will enjoy this. It’s not a programming primer and it is not going to turn you into an expert in any of the languages but it’s enough to get you started.

Worth a look….

In Case of Delays

Okay, your flight to Vegas may need more than just the one book, especially with the inevitable delays. So here’s a couple more books.

‘Zero History’ finishes Gibson’s ‘Blue Ant’ trilogy begun by ‘Pattern Recognition’ and continued in ‘Spook Country’; it features  Hollis Henry and Milgrim from Spook Country along with the recurring Hubertus Bigend.

Featuring the concept of secret brands; brands which are underground, where the heat is generated from the street and never revealed to the mainstream. In this case it’s a secret brand of jeans known as ‘Gabriel Hounds’. Bigend wants to know more about the brand for his agency and employs Hollis and Milgrim to discover more about it. At first they are working seperately but soon their paths cross and converge; with everyone eventually ending up in way over their heads.

The thread of the story shifts quickly and frequently drawing in many strands to weave a story which is much greater than the parts.

This is classic Gibson full of knowing references to brands, technology and in a world which is mostly familiar. And for a novel written by an American but set in London; it really captures the feel of my home city…

I’ve always enjoyed Gibson’s prose and even when the story hasn’t been the greatest, I find his rhythm and structure pleasing but this time, it’s coupled with fast-moving  and entertaining story.

And now for something completely different; ‘Don’t Sleep, There are Snakes: Life and Language in the Amazonian Jungle’ by Daniel Everett.

Daniel Everett started as a missionary to the Pirahãs tribe in the Amazon; sent there to learn their language so that he could translate the Bible into their language. He discovered a language which challenged his understanding of both linguistics and also his faith.

This book is fascinating as it demonstrates how language can change and colour our views and even our deepest held beliefs.  For example a language which has no counting system, no fixed words for colour or even personal property; a culture which accepts dreams as an equally valid reality to that of waking. A life lived entirely in present, where only eye-witness accounts have any value.

This account of Daniel’s personal journey is funny, exciting, moving and thought provoking. Well worth a go. And perhaps a good way to spend time being delayed in airport lounges.

Enjoy Your Flight

Okay, the summer holiday season is nearly over but some of you have long flights to look forward to on your way to VMworld; so perhaps some geeky novels could help pass the time. Well, it’ll make a change from trying to catch up on all those features that you will never use in the latest version of VMware.

Ready Player One is the first novel from Ernest Cline; who wrote the screenplay for  thecult film ‘Fanboys’; set in a grim near future where the energy crisis, global climate change has lead to widespread disease, poverty, war and famine. Indenture for debtors has become law and large corporates rule the roost.

A familiar setting but within this setting, a funny, exciting and well imagined novel is set. For despite the bleak reality, the population of this world can escape into a virtual reality known as OASIS.

The OASIS was developed and built by James Halliday; a reality built on top of geek culture from the 70s on. Halliday has died and left no heir but he has left a will leaving his fortune to the person who can find the three keys within OASIS to unlock the Easter Egg hidden within the game.

A whole culture has built up around this; loners, gaming clans and even a big bad corporate all seek the keys to the realm. A culture obsessed with the minutiae of geek culture, who know Monty Python backwards, Wargames, The Breakfast Club…Pacman….Zork…all these are believed to hold the answers to the quest.

A young man finds himself the first to crack the first clue and from this, the quest for control of OASIS turns into a race with twists and turns; well imagined realities with many of tips of the hat to especially 80s culture lead to a book within a book, how many can you spot and how many do you know.

If you grew up geek and love geek culture….this is the book for you. And if you didn’t, there’s a cracking adventure story in it and it might just make you curious enough about geek culture to google some of the references.

A Year with Kindle

It’s just under a year since I got my Kindle and I still love it.

According to my Amazon account, I’ve got about 220 books in my Amazon library; there are a mix of free books and there’s also a lot of purchases in that. I subscribe to Asimov’s Science Fiction, Fantasy & Science Fiction and MIT Technology Review on it; I love the way that they just pop onto the Kindle on publication automagically.

Also on my Kindle, there’s probably another 60 books; a mix of O’Reilly books, technical PDFs and some odds and ends which I already had in one format or another.

And there’s still plenty of space left on it for a lot more and I’ve not had to delete any yet to make space.

I could take on holiday nearly 300 books just by slipping a single device into my pocket without worry about space or weight.

Since buying the Kindle, I find myself browsing the Amazon e-book bargains and have picked up lots of stuff for 99p; so cheap that I can take a risk but mostly I’ve found pretty good stuff. Often it’s the first book in the series and I go on to read the rest in the series.

There’s nothing intrinsically better about reading a book on a Kindle I find but also I don’t find myself missing the tactile quality of paper. I read fast and I haven’t found it slowing me down; it’s also a lot harder to cheat and skip to the end of a book just find out who dunnit.

The quality of the screen is amazing and I find the contrast just right for me. There is something about it which reminds me of the old excellent monochrome monitor which Atari made for the ST back in the day.

I’ve got the 3G/WiFi version and have on rare occasion used it to browse the web on; normally when the battery on my phone is on the way out and there is something I absolutely must find out. The browser is functional and kind of reminiscent of the early versions of Netscape in feel.

The keyboard is lousy however and you really do not want to type anything beyond a short URL or a short note. I once tried composing an email on it and nearly tossed the Kindle in the bin; it is horrible and worse than the ZX81 Keyboard from days of yore.

The screen as I say is excellent but actually I do have a complaint; it is too small and reading technical books with diagrams is painful on it. Amazon should ditch the physical keyboard and see if they can go soft keyboard and use the space regain to display more of a page.

I find the PDF rendering less than good and yet again diagrams are horrible in my experience. To be honest, if you are going to be reading technical books and viewing PDFs; I’d go with an iPad.

I thought I might find myself using it as an occasional MP3 player; I haven’t! I use my phone for that and simply haven’t got round to putting any MP3s on my Kindle at all. I’ve also not tried the text-speech, so I really can’t comment on the Kindle’s audio qualities at all; I’m sure they’ll be fine especially if piped through something like the Fiio E7 and a decent pair of headphones.

I would really like to see a colour Kindle but I suspect that might come at some sacrifice to the existing quality of the display; if it can be done with no quality compromise, I’d welcome it. I want to be able to read comics on the Kindle as well but yet again, that’d probably need an increase in screen size.

A touch screen and some way to scribble notes in the margins of books; that’d be great as well.

Do I want it to be a fully fledged tablet? Not if it compromises battery life; the battery life is so good and I don’t want another device which needs charging daily. But I would like it to be able be more user configurable; I would like to install my own screen-saver pictures without hacking it (yes, mine is hacked) and perhaps widget support on the lock screen would be great so that it pulled a news feed for example onto it.

All in all, I think that the Kindle is probably my favourite device of the past couple of years; it’s certainly the one I use the most and it’s also the one which strangers have asked to have a look at the most.

If you love reading, I think you owe it to yourself to give it a go. And even if you love books (and I still do love physical books), you still should give it a try. I’ve discovered so many different books since getting the Kindle, I can hardly remember a year when I’ve read so much.

And the best thing about the Kindle……no-one knows that you are reading the latest Dan Brown or whatever other guilty pleasure you have.


My New Favourite Thing

I love my Kindle, it’s just about the best thing ever; I can carry hundreds of books around with me and I am almost never without it except for one place and it’s a place I really like to read in…


And finally, I have a solution and I can now read my Kindle in the bath without fear of it getting wet.

The Case Logic Water-resistant Kindle 3 Sleeve; it seals my Kindle into a nice water-resistant case which has a double seal and a velcro closure. The plastic window seems nice and clear and it is easy to turn the pages. So with the really excellent battery-life of the Kindle, I can now spend hours in the bath reading!

I am a happy and clean Storagebod! If you have a Kindle and like reading in the bath, this is highly recommended!