Saturday, November 19, 2005

Java Puzzlers, by Joshua Bloch and Neal Gafter

Java Puzzlers: Traps, Pitfalls, and Corner Cases, by Joshua Bloch and Neal Gafter

Early last week I came home and discovered a heavy envelope from FedEx waiting for me. I opened it and found a book—Java Puzzlers. To say I was surprised would be an understatement, as I hadn’t ordered it and in fact had never heard of it. Tucked inside the front cover was a note from the publisher saying the book had been sent with the compliments of the authors for my help on the project. My help? What help? The light finally went on when I found my name in the acknowledgements crediting me with puzzle 59. Back in 2002 I attended JavaOne (with Alex and Matt) and went to a great session about Java brainteasers. At its close, Bloch invited the audience to send in other puzzles for future talks; I sent him a couple. He used one of my ideas, and three years later he not only remembered this but sent me a gratis copy! Great guy, that Joshua Bloch!

I’ve always been interested in the trivia and minutiae around software technologies, and this book doesn’t disappoint. It is filled with tricks and obfuscations that can be found within the Java programming language. Things like, “When is i != i true?” [Click for answer] I always learn more about how a language really works from something like this instead of a more traditional guide; it makes me think more and I seem to retain the knowledge longer. Even better, along with the soution is a lesson describing how to avoid the pitfall in your everyday coding. Good stuff.

Besides the puzzles themselves, a lot of thought went into this publication. There are optical illusions between each quandary, reflecting the misdirection that is the theme of the book. The title of each puzzle has an amusing name, many of which include hints as to the nature of the trick as well (my favorite: It’s Absurd, It’s a Pain, It’s Superclass!). Also, the layout is designed so that a puzzle always ends on the bottom of a right-facing page and so the answer is hidden from view reducing the temptation to cheat. Smart.

First Sentence:
This book is filled with brainteasers about the Java programming language and its core libraries.

Wednesday, November 16, 2005

Confessions of a Master Jewel Thief, by Bill Mason and Lee Gruenfeld

Confessions of a Master Jewel Thief, by Bill Mason and Lee Gruenfeld

This was a compelling read. Bill Mason is one of the most successful jewel thieves this country has ever seen—think Cary Grant in To Catch a Thief. In some ways he was much smarter than the police and FBI: they couldn’t keep him in prison without falsifying evidence. In other ways he was a typical dumb criminal: he publicly thumbed his nose at the cops and purposely made them look inept. The most compelling parts by far were the descriptions of how he planned and committed the heists. Mason robbed Phyllis Diller, Robert Goulet, Armand Hammer, Truman Capote, and the mob among others. Some of these jobs were pretty simple (picking a lock on a hotel door) and others were not (inching around a ledge in a driving rainstorm sixteen stories above the pavement). Interesting stuff; I certainly won’t be using the “Please Make Up Room” signs in hotel rooms any more!

He also spends a lot of time complaining about the harassment visited on him and his family by law enforcement. While I have little respect for cops that abuse their authority, I have a hard time feeling sorry for someone that makes a living by invading homes and stealing family treasures. Glorifying a criminal enterprise is not a good thing. There are a few sentences of remorse at the end, but I never felt Mason was sorry for anything other than getting caught. That said, this book was well written and fascinating. I suppose you’d have to call it a guilty pleasure.

First Sentence:
My name is Bill Mason.

Thursday, November 10, 2005

Understanding Variation, by Donald Wheeler

Understanding Variation; The Key to Managing Chaos, by Donald Wheeler

This book has some great insights into data analysis and process behavior charts. Some would call this a very boring, extremely dry topic; unfortunately, the style in which it was written won’t change many minds. Some really good stuff in here about how to separate signal from noise when examining data. An idea I’ve held for a while is that arbitrary numerical goals can be counterproductive, and this book explains why. Is this a page turner? No. Does it make reasonably complicated statistics much easier to understand? Yes.

First Sentence:
Recently the U.S. Trade Balance for February showed a deficit of 11.4 billion dollars.

New Sherlock Holmes Adventures, edited by Mike Ashley

New Sherlock Holmes Adventures, edited by Mike Ashley

I have always liked Sherlock Holmes, ever since I found the Baker Street Irregular series when I was a kid. So, when I came across this anthology of new Holmes tales written by modern authors lying in the bargain bin, I picked it up. The stories range from mediocre (The Affray at the Kildare Street Club by Peter Tremayne) to simply awful (The Adventure of the Bulgarian Diplomat by Zakaria Erzinçlioglu). Some of the worst cliches of fan fiction are found here: Holmes meets H. G. Wells in The Adventure of the Inertial Adjustor (by Stephen Baxter), sniffs with derision at Thomas Edison for taking credit for inventing the movie projector in The Enigma of the Warwickshire Vortex (by F. Gwynplaine MacIntyre), and mentions his friendship with the Curie family in more than one story. Despite the banality, though, there was one great idea that permeated the collection. The editor wrote a preface and brief introduction to each entry that told the story as if Holmes and Watson were real and this book was a compilation of research into the cases Watson never published. He goes as far as to mention how and where the various authors discovered the notes from which the case was detailed — fairly amusing. There is an excellent appendix as well that details not only when and where all the Conan Doyle stories were published, but provides a lengthy list of other “apocryphal” Holmes stories as well. Some of these sound quite interesting; if nothing else the New Sherlock Holmes Adventures should give me some good reading in the future.

First Sentence (from the introduction):
For more years than I care to remember I have been researching the life of the first and best known of all private consulting detectives, Mr Sherlock Holmes.

Sunday, November 06, 2005

Movin' Out

Movin’ Out

My wife and I went to see Movin’ Out the other night. I’ve always liked Billy Joel and was looking forward to seeing this show — I wasn’t disappointed. A story line is loosely stitched around a bunch of his music and expressed via modern dance. If you had told me that I was going to enjoy something that revolved around interpretive dance I’d have laughed in your face, but this was really good: a combination of swing, jazz, and ballet. The characters don’t sing or talk themselves, all the sound is provided by the band. There is a brief synopsis of what happens in the program that helps fill in any story gaps in the music and dance; the drunk Junior League ladies sitting next to me didn’t read it and spent a lot of time loudly whispering to each other trying to figure out what was happening. Despite that, we loved the show. The music was great; the band and singers were all top notch. Some of the lyrics were altered to better fit the setting, but nothing major. The encore was a bit cheesy with the band going into a rendition of New York State of Mind but of course changing the lyrics to an Austin Texas State of Mind, but the rest was fantastic. Movin’ Out is engaging and vibrant, satisfying and entertaining. Go see it!

The Shadow of Saganami, by David Weber

The Shadow of Saganami, by David Weber

I’ve enjoyed the Honor Harrington series but thought it was getting stale. After 15 or so books the plotlines are starting to get a bit repetitive so I was happy to see a new series in the same universe being created. This wasn’t as strong as some of the earlier Honor books, but still enjoyable. A bunch of new characters are quickly introduced and several are promising. I’m looking forward to the next one in the series.

While the centerpiece is still a military space opera, politics takes a significant portion of the bandwidth. We’ve got planets run by big business, planets with strong socialist tendencies, planets with rigid class divisions, planets with limited governments, etcetera. The plot revolves around all these worlds trying to form a single constitution to join a larger political body. While this could have been fairly interesting à la the Federalist and Anti-Federalist Papers, it tended to drag. Weber has a tendency to drone on long after his point has been made; my dad would say he is the kind of guy that if you asked him what time it was he’d tell you how to build a clock.

After a slow start the story is captivating, but I think about 150 pages could have been shaved off without too much trouble. If you aren’t in a hurry, though, it is worth wading through. I wouldn’t use this as an entry point into the Honorverse, but it is well worth reading.

First Sentence:
Admiral of the Red Lady Dame Honor Harrington, Steadholder and Duchess Harrington, sat beside Vice Admiral of the Red Dame Beatrice McDermott, Baroness Alb, and watched silently as the comfortable amphitheater seating of the huge holographic simulator filled up.

The Bright Spot, by Robert Sydney

The Bright Spot, by Robert Sydney

The Bright Spot is a mystery novel set in a dark time in our not too distant future. It is mostly formulaic; the protagonist finds himself thrust into a situation that he doesn’t comprehend, refuses to take the easy way out multiple times, and eventually obtains both understanding and power. While not amazingly original, the vision of our future that surrounds the characters is more interesting. The supposition is that something called workware has been invented that allows people to flawlessly perform tasks, without training. Think of it like what happens to the heroes of the Matrix when getting new knowledge downloaded: one minute you don’t know how to fly a helicopter and the next you do. There is also the unfortunate side-effect of the person running workware not remembering anything that happens when it is active. Workware is the MacGuffin that drives the plot; turns out that someone has the ability to take control over someone running workware and can make them do absolutely anything, including murder. The characters are one-dimensional and the plot is fairly obvious, but I still enjoyed reading it.

The idea of workware isn’t amazingly farfetched with today’s technology; neurophysiology is a quickly growing science, prosthetic limbs are becoming more and more advanced, and cochlear implants are allowing deaf people to hear again. How distant are automatic learning technologies? Okay, probably not in my lifetime. But 50 years ago the idea of a device that allowed a deaf person to enjoy Boléro would have been laughable. Who knows?

First Sentence:
They called themselves Recreation, described themselves as sort of educational, sort of artsy.

Time Magazine's All-Time 100 Novels

I’m behind on blogging the books I’ve read, but came across this list the other day and couldn’t resist mentioning it. Lists like this I always find amusing, but rarely agree with them completely. Then again, that is usually the point — to generate conversation. This particular one is even more bogus that most, though; the criteria for inclusion was simply books the authors liked, and although the title reads all-time only books since 1923 were allowed. This article should have been named Our 100 Favorite Modern Novels but then it probably wouldn’t have gotten published in Time.

The most surprising part was a title I wouldn’t have expected to find on a list like this: Watchmen. Graphic novels generally get very little respect when compared with “traditional” literature so seeing one here was unexpected. While I agree that Watchmen is a seminal work, it seems unfair to compare such different forms of the written word. After all, The Snowy Day isn’t here, either. In any case, I’m glad to see graphic novels getting some respect. Unfortunately, while Watchmen is an excellent story, I suspect that many people will dismiss it as comic book fare simply because it deals with super heroes. The Road to Perdition is a title that might resonate with more people, especially with the recent Tom Hanks movie. The goal of the list wasn’t to introduce new art forms, though, and The Road to Perdition probably doesn’t belong on a list of the best ever. But I digress.

Ignoring all that, with any list like this the first thing you do is try and name the novels are missing. My list: Brave New World, The Maltese Falcon, The Moon is a Harsh Mistress, Stranger in a Strange Land, Fahrenheit 451, The Hunt For Red October, Winnie-the-Pooh, A Separate Peace, Rebecca, and A Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy to name a few off the top of my head. I could quibble over several titles that are there that shouldn’t be as well, but I’ll leave that as an exercise for the reader. :)

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