jyrgenn: Blurred head shot from 2007 (Default)
Apparently I haven't yet written about Rowling's eagerly awaited first non-Harry-Potter book. Like, I guess, everyone else I was curious how she would hold up outside of her usual world and genre. To make it short: very well.

Roughly one and a half years after it was published, I read it on a vacation on Mallorca; I had a plenty of time for reading and for immersing myself in the book. Equally curious what route she would take at all, I saw that this was not fantasy, not mystery, not historic, just fiction. In between I have forgotten much of the book, but its essence still lingers.

After someone dies right at the start of the book, the social fabric of a small English town emerges as people learn of his death. After getting to know the protagonists we are shown their relationships, first the obvious ones, then the hidden ones, their backgrounds, their desires, their history, their conflicts, their secrets.

In parts this is like in a whodunit story, only there is no crime, as the death was clearly due to a natural cause. And unlike the typical whodunit the fabric is not static, as people not only go on about their business, but new things happen, existing relationships change, new relationship are built, and some conflicts are resolved.

I like it. Rowling has shown that she is not limited to genre fiction. This book is full of believable characters and developments; nothing feels forced or pretentious.

Of course I read the book because her name is on it. But it is well worth reading on its own merits.
jyrgenn: Blurred head shot from 2007 (Default)
Some time ago I found this book mentioned at some other place and immediately resolved to read it, which I finally did.

Fox is a cultural anthropologist by trade, and as such, embarks on the IIRC self-appointed endeavour to investigate the English. While this is a serious study, she presents it with lots of humour, making this book both interesting and funny.

At the end she arrives at the result that at the core of Englishness sits what she calls the "social dis-ease", a non-relaxedness, an awkwardness of the English in dealing with each other (except with close friends and family). This social dis-ease results not only in hypocrisy, class snobbery, and eeyorishness, but also in humour, modesty, and fair play.

But not only the result is interesting, but also all the details she gets into. Her own embarrassment when she experiments with queue-jumping, all those consequences of the money-talk taboo, a broad perspective on rites of passage — there is a lot in here, and all really fascinating to see so thoroughly scrutinized.

Everywhere in that book I recognized things that also applied to me, or rather to the northern German society I grew up in, and things that did not. It would be most interesting to read the same book about my own tribe; alas, of course it is impossible to find the same kind of anthropologist from northern Germany doing the same thing.

So this must stand alone, but as such, it is an extremely interesting book, and great fun to read.
jyrgenn: Blurred head shot from 2007 (Default)
When I was in London Easter 2009, I saw an ad for this book in the Underground and took a picture to remember it, because I liked the title. A few weeks ago I noticed the picture again and, as it was just the time for some mindless entertainment, bought the book on the Orinoco Market (or the like) for € 0.01 (yes, really!) plus € 3 for shipping. That should be worth it, I thought. And it was! This is a nice, light comedy, reminding me a bit of Bridget Jones, but maybe even funnier. The (SPOILER!) happy ending with the twist is not a real surprise any more when it finally happens, but (oh the irony!) that was to be expected.
jyrgenn: Blurred head shot from 2007 (Default)
This is not the first of Crichton's books I have picked up for a second time. I really liked it on first reading for its fast-paced story-telling and, other than, for instance, the Da Vinci Code, for the story itself. That is what Crichton does (or rather did) so well: write gripping and highly entertaining stories that are not stupid. They may not be the most distinguished and sophisticated art, but page-turners that I don't feel bad about afterwards.

Anyone who, like myself, is not into quantum physics will not really notice the boundary between fact and fiction when that drivel about quantum effects and time travel comes up. This makes the willing suspension of disbelief easy, and it doesn't get into the way of the story. Well, at least for me it works, as the story is good in distracting the reader from the technical things. Have you ever faced a really dangerous and angry knight in a joust who will probably try to kill you as soon as he sees a chance? I thought you haven't.
jyrgenn: Blurred head shot from 2007 (Default)
Apart from the ebooks I read two paper books during this vacation.

Oliver Lepsius, Reinhart Meyer-Kalkus (eds.): Inszenierung als Beruf. Der Fall Guttenberg.
This was the premier political scandal in Germany 2011: After a crowd of anonymous Internet users had proven that his doctorate dissertation had been mostly copied from other sources, the german minister of defense, Karl-Theodor zu Guttenberg, had to step down due to public pressure. "His" university of Bayreuth held a symposium about the case, and the participants' contributions are included in this book. Extremely interesting essays from a number of top intellectuals.

Jacques Berndorf: Eifel-Connection
Berndorf writes whodunit novels placed in the Eifel region of far western Germany, and this is one of them. Like Paretsky's, his protagonist, an aging journalist living on the country, is beaten up in every one of the books, uncovers a major conspiration, and succeeds only with the generous help of his friends. But like hers, his books have a certain (though different) charm about them that I happen to like.
jyrgenn: Blurred head shot from 2007 (Default)
Lamenting, as always, the lack of baggage space, the beloved wife and I finally resolved to try ebooks. As a budget-priced option Amazon's new Kindle (the new one without keyboard or touch screen) was chosen, after I had established that it is indeed reasonably possible to read ebooks on it that come from independent sources. It doesn't work with epub, but (for instance) Calibre can convert epub to mobi format. It can also display PDF and plain text documents.

Alas, the selection of ebooks available from Amazon has its shortcomings. Newish books are very similar in price to the print editions, but lack their flexibility -- you cannot easily lend them to others, give them away, resell them, etc. While some of this is possible, as I understand, it is not easy. So this is not an option for the mystery novels the beloved wife consumes at an alarming rate.

But then there are a lot of classics with expired copyright available for free (as in beer, dunno if they are DRMed or not) directly from Amazon, meaning they can be copied to the device with a single click. Lots of others are available from Project Gutenberg in Kindle format, even in German. (BTW, that "Gutenberg-DE" thing is a commercial enterprise that makes it as difficult as possible to download and carry away whole books -- they want you to read the stuff on their site, which generates income by advertising and by selling stuff on CD-ROM.)

Apart from the free stuff there is also a lot of quite cheap content available from Amazon, only not necessarily what you have been looking for. It is worth a look, though.

The Kindle, with 1.4 GB free for books, can hold a lot, given that most books are just a few 100 KB. This is of course excellent for a vacation, and exactly what we had been looking for.

It took me a while to get used to reading stuff on the Kindle and not be distracted by the technical device itself, but after that it is quite pleasant. The hardware is a good compromise between being small and being good to hold in one or two hands. The page turn buttons are very well placed on the sides. The screen is excellent to read when brightly lit and bearable when not so well. I found it useful to adjust the font size accordingly; I use one size smaller than the default with my reading glasses in good light and one size bigger in not-so-good light or with my normal glasses on.

Now, the books:
Neal Stephenson: In the Beginning was the Command Line
This is the first ebook I actually started reading -- I had already begun reading it on the Android phone that I carried for (the previous) work, so it naturally landed on the Kindle as well. I read a bit further into it during this vacation. But the more I read of it, the more I failed to miss his point and wondered "so what is he getting at?" Apart from that, I was more and more annoyed by him not really having understood many of the technical things he talks about.

Sara Paretsky: Hardball
Years ago I have read lots of her V.I. Warshawski novels, and this is another one. Actually the beloved wife wanted to read this one, so it was in German. The translation has a few bugs, but is bearable. It isn't extraordinary, compared to the other ones, even fulfilled more V.I. clichés than I'd have cared for (she gets beaten up multiple times, deeply annoys her late father's police colleagues and other authorities only to be reconciled with the good ones in the end, digs up a major conspiracy, gets close to getting killed, and succeeds only with the help of her close friends), but I still liked it.

Steven Pinker: How the Mind Works
The print edition, even hardcover, has been sitting on my shelf for years, as it is too big and too heavy to read on the move. Now, as an ebook, even relatively cheap for just a bit over € 10, it was easy to carry with me. I began it during this vacation, but didn't get through it. I have read nearly half of it now, and it is still too big. More to the point, I find it too fluffy. So many anecdotes, so much trying to keep it an easy read, all this makes it a bit tiring for me, as the actual information rate is too low and I have to dig through so much fluff. Of course there is is a lot of interesting information in it, and I will read it to the end. But it seems that Pinker's efforts to make the information more accessible have made it less accessible for me.

Hans Christian Nickelsen: Meine lieben Enkel! ("My dear Grandchildren!")
In his last years, my grandfather wrote up some memories, addressed to his grandchildren. This is probably not interesting at all for anyone not related to him or at least very interested in what it meant to be a teacher in the 1930s to 1960s, especially at a german school in the (formerly german) parts of southern Denmark. It is for me, though, and while my father finds it painful to read for all his father's difficult conceptions of his family, my own personal distance is big enough to find it bearable in this respect. I formatted this as a PDF document exactly for the Kindle's page size, so I could choose a type that suits me better than the builtin ones. Unfortunately the dots of the german umlauts (äöü) don't correctly line up with the letters, though.

The final words: Reading ebooks on the Kindle (or any other ebook reader) can be fine, but it has its limitations. Apart from the mentioned consequences of DRM I cannot, for instance, thumb through the book to see how far that particularly boring passage goes, I have to page through it one by one. Most new ebooks are too expensive given the limitations. I find the possibility of putting stuff on the device by USB cable necessary, but also appreciate the ability to load them via email.
jyrgenn: Blurred head shot from 2007 (Default)
A review by Russ Allbery and subsequent discussion pointed me to this book. I agree totally with him, so no need to repeat everything he said. This is indeed an immensely interesting book. The best thing about it is that it made me reflect about my own programming as well. For instance, with all these illustrious role models doing the same, I now feel less guilty about some things that I do myself, such as not diving deeper into the intricacies of debugging using gdb and things, but just going the easy way using debug printouts to learn about the state of my program. Or just rewriting passages of my code that I don't really understand instead of finding the bug and fixing it.

I also agree with Russ's rating of the book, 10 of 10 points. And apparently it is quite a success, too; when I recently mentioned the book to two of my colleagues, both had already read it.
jyrgenn: Blurred head shot from 2007 (Default)
The house we had near Gdansk had a small selection of books, most in English. Realizing after a few days that my own choice of books that I had brought with me was not really fit for the occasion, I took one of those. I didn't get through it during that week, but I could buy it used later over Amazon for € 0.01 plus € 3.00 for shipping. (Why do they do that? There cannot be much profit in that, can it?)

In early 2002 Janie, in her later 30s, decides to separate from her husband, for whom she has lost the respect, although not the love. When she wakes up the next day, she realizes she is back at her parents' home and 16 years old, but still with the knowledge and consciousness of her previous existence. After the initial confusion she settles into her new old role of 1981 and prepares for making everything better. That includes making some money from the knowledge she has (by buying shares of IBM and Tesco), but also saving Lady Di and Prince Charles from their ill-fated marriage, making more mature decisions regarding the people in her life, and above all preparing for the day when she meets her to-be husband, with the aim to make their relationship better as well as him a better man.

As the reader has suspected long before, this does not work out. Instead, her life takes a quite different course. All the while she wonders what the exact purpose was of sending her into the past -- there must be one, as there are some mysterious people involved in her fate, but instead of putting her in the know, they just tell her to wait for later instructions all the time.

I found the book a bit disappointing at the end. A big surprise was not totally unexpected as such at that point, but it did much less to wrap up the whole story than I had hoped for. Anyway, that was some nice light reading, solidly entertaining and quite funny in parts, although not much more.
jyrgenn: Blurred head shot from 2007 (Default)
Another Lisp classic that I have wanted to read for decades. I have only just begun, so I have not much to say about it except that it is out of print and I had to buy it through a used-book merchant and not exactly cheap, and that I hope to find a few things in it that can help me to make my new Lisp interpreter better.
jyrgenn: Blurred head shot from 2007 (Default)
This one I have been wanting to read for ages. When I finally bought it this summer, I was not so intrigued, though. But that came when code for a Lisp interpreter began to pour out of my brain in fall (see http://hic-sunt-lambdas.de/), and the vacation in November was perfect for reading this book.

It takes a bit of getting into it, because the terminology is different from the later established one in some parts. But then there is all that which is so familiar to anyone who loves Lisp. And much more about implementation details than I had hoped for. Not that any of those is really applicable to my own implementation, though, but it has gives me some ideas that I might like to follow.
jyrgenn: Blurred head shot from 2007 (Default)
Goldacre is a medical doctor working for the NHS, and he has a column called "Bad Science" in the Guardian and a blog of the same name. This book is, as I understand it, distilled from both with a bit of new material.

Mainly he has a bone to pick with those who influence the public with the pretension of scientific background, be it their own qualifications or the results of "research". He tells us how honest and accurate medical research is done and why it is done this way, then picks others' work to pieces where it is lacking in accuracy or honesty.

I found this quite instructive and interesting, and because he can write, also entertaining. But there are some points where Goldacre loses his humor, and that is where careless or even deceptive dealing with facts costs actual lives.
jyrgenn: Blurred head shot from 2007 (Default)
"We children of the war children -- the generation in the shadow of the second world war" is the translation of the title. Ustorf shows how people whose parents were children in the war or post-war period can still be strongly affected by war traumas passed on by their parents.

I read this because because I was curious if this is an issue for me, too. After all my parents were born 1937 and 1938, and my mother and her family even refugees from East Prussia. But after reading this book I can say that I am apparently unaffected by these transgenerational traumas.

There is this aspect of having no real Heimat, a region where I grew up and am familiar with everything, because my parents moved around a lot when I was a child. But while this is typical for war and refugee traumas to some degree, both my parents' families tended to move around even before the war, so this is unlikely to be a particular consequence of the war in my case.
jyrgenn: Blurred head shot from 2007 (Default)
Science fiction from the early 1940s. I found this book first in a dumpster in Vienna on my summer trip 1981, and it was probably the first novel that I read in English on my own.

I was quite impressed by the book and wanted to use it as the examination topic for the oral Abitur in case I needed it, but it turned out that the written exam was in line with my previous grades, so I needed no oral. So the teacher gave me back the book, which he had borrowed to prepare himself for the oral. A co-student who was around saw the book, was curious, borrowed it on the spot, and never gave it back. Now, 28 years later, I read the book again.

Sirius is a dog, the crowning result of a scientist's effort to improve the brain capacity of animals. Sirius, with human-like intelligence, is brought up together with the scientist's youngest daughter, which creates a strong bond between these two unequal non-siblings. Sirius grows up to be a very insightful person, is examined in detail by scientists in Oxford, and later makes a career in sheep farming.

Stapledon makes this book very interesting by exploring an immense number of consequences -- philosophical, practical, sexual, social, ethical -- of a dog being so intelligent. And it is entertaining, too.
jyrgenn: Blurred head shot from 2007 (Default)
Jones was the head of scientific intelligence at the british intelligence service during the second world war, and this book is an account of his efforts in that time: anticipating the german efforts in scientific warfare based on intelligence findings, and developing countermeasures. The primary technical areas were bomber guiding systems, radar, and the V1 and V2 weapons.

Much of this is very interesting. His detailed accounts of the internal politics of british intelligence are a bit tiring at times, but maybe this only reflects how he himself has felt about these issues.
jyrgenn: Blurred head shot from 2007 (Default)
Lua has been in the back of my head for a while, cannot remember why. Now that I have looked at it a bit by reading this book (and the Lua 5.1 Reference Manual, which is refreshingly short), I seem to be quite fond if it. I had no opportunity to do much with it yet, but there are quite a few things to like.

Functions are first-class values. Functions can be defined as closures. Environments are (kind of) first-class values, too. The syntax is a bit like Modula (while ... do ... end and the like). Typing is dynamic. Variables are created implicitly, which admittedly simplifies a few things, but I don't like it very much. Nothing of these darned $'s and %'s and @'s of Perl, which is good. And not its irregularities of syntax, which is much better. Lua is probably too small for irregularities anyway.

Tables can have metatables that control accesses to existing and particularly to non-existing fields; this is put to some interesting uses. For instance, packages and OOisms are done through tables as well, openly, but with some clever syntactic sugar around it. I like that. Prototype-based inheritance, not real classes, although you can pretend they are there.

Well, yes. Now I should probably go and do the canonical exercise, write a Lisp interpreter in it. Give me the time, someone, please.
jyrgenn: Blurred head shot from 2007 (Default)
One of Paretsky's V. I. Warshawski detective novels. I read most or even all of them some 10 years ago and liked them a lot. Now for some reason I got the idea of reading one again, and still liked it.
jyrgenn: Blurred head shot from 2007 (Default)
Former music producer Levitin became neuroscientist out of curiosity how music works in the brain. For my taste he explains too much, and tells too many not-too-relevant stories, but nevertheless the book is full of interesting facts.

And in the end, his solution of the mystery what music really is: Not a senseless byproduct of language evolution, "cheesecake", as Pinker put it -- the development of cheesecake being a nice, but otherwise meaningless collateral result of the human craving for fat and carbohydrates --, but an important means of sexual selection, compared to the peacock's tail. (Of course we find music much more important and profound than a ridiculously huge mass of useless feathers, but then we are humans and not peacocks.)

So that is the reason why rock stars are considered so eminently shaggable by so many. I knew I should have made a bigger effort to go into that direction myself.
jyrgenn: Blurred head shot from 2007 (Default)
Triggered by the (awful) german film made of "Death at La Fenice" I read these two books again. Really good, especially Acqua Alta.
jyrgenn: Blurred head shot from 2007 (Default)
This book is not about a marriage, but about Berlin's district Wedding, like the (in)famous Neukölln one of the poorer ones, with a large percentage of unemployed people and of people of foreign, mostly turkish, descent. And like Uli Hannemann's "Neulich in Neukölln" this is a collection of short stories.

But where Hannemann is bitter and cynical, Evers has some sarcastic fun with the more absurd facts of unemployed life. This is still humourous, and I enjoyed it.
jyrgenn: Blurred head shot from 2007 (Default)
Kenneally, a linguist herself, gives an overview of the current state of research about the evolution of language. For me this is – at the moment, at least – the most interesting research topic at all. And while this is a popular science book, I was not bored by a repetition of that part of the stuff about language I had read elsewhere before.

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