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Recently read: Clearing out the Backlog Edition

[Originally published at the now defunct group blog explananda.com]

Posted on January 17, 2010
Tags: book_reviews

Peter Siebel. Coders at Work: Reflections on the Craft of Programming

This superb book is a collection of fifteen interviews with well-known and highly-regarded programmers (Norvig, Armstrong, Knuth, etc). Siebel (author of Practical Common Lisp) is a professional programmer with a keen sense of the (brief) history of the profession. This gives the interviews a depth and a richness that even a clever journalist could never have matched. Siebel is a consistently thoughtful interviewer who asks just the right mix of questions. In any one interview, the questions range from practical ones concerned with how the subjects debug code to more general questions about whether the nature of programming has changed over time. Across interviews, Siebel asks enough of the same questions that we can start to view the answers in comparative perspective, while also allowing what is special about the careers and interests of the subjects to emerge.

In short, if you’re interested in programming, this book is wildly engrossing. A word of warning: If you don’t have any experience programming, and some background knowledge of the field, you’re probably not going to be able to get much out of the book. Some passages were certainly over my head, as I’ve only been a professional programmer since June, when I got my green card, and if I recall correctly, only really got started teaching myself Python about a year and a half ago. But most of it was accessible and inspiring to this junior programmer.

Amy Sohn. Prospect Park West

We lived briefly in (very South) Park Slope when we first moved to Brooklyn, and although we’ve since moved out to Flatbush, we’re back in the Slope all the time. We eat at Al Di La whenever we can afford to. We’ve been members of the infamous Park Slope Food Coop for several years now, and we’re set to have a baby in the Spring. So although my expectations weren’t all that high, I pretty much had to check Prospect Park West out of the Brooklyn Public library, after waiting patiently for my turn in a queue that was over 250 holds long. Prospect Park West is set against this familiar background. The plot follows the ill-considered affair of a Park Slope mother, whose life is connected to a few other characters by a string of coincidences that I would have found far-fetched ten years ago, before I started to notice equally striking coincidences in my own life. (Always remember that odds are that life will be filled with the improbable, since there are an enormous number of possible improbable events—so many that it would be highly improbable for us to go long without another improbable event occurring. This is one reason, among several, that life is filled with strangeness and magic, if you keep an eye out for it.)

Prospect Park West is not a great work of literature, but it’s readable enough. The book’s basic outlook is misanthropic without much in the way of compensating insight. I get that some Park Slope mothers can be a bit much, but so can the author when she (in the mouths of her characters) gets going about them. The author gets points, though, for her depiction of the strange, confusing, prickly racial tension you run across in Brooklyn all the time, and which I struggle to explain to my friends back in Canada. This too was perhaps also a bit overdone, but unfortunately not by much.

One correction: A check out line at the Coop that stretches back to the bread section does not count as long. I don’t know when Sohn shops, but that’s pretty routine in my experience. Long is when it goes all the way along the produce aisle as far back as the milk section.

Charles Dickens. Oliver Twist

This is only the second Dickens novel I’ve read, the other being A Tale of Two Cities. I found A Tale of Two Cities pretty silly, but against my better judgment found the ending weirdly sublime. I didn’t have as much luck with Oliver Twist, which I read for the sole reason that we’re naming our kid “Oliver” and I figured I should at least read the book that helped make his name famous. (On my to do list: Who the hell is Oliver Cromwell?) I found the social commentary in the first part of the book entertaining enough, if heavy-handed. But as the plot advanced, the melodrama and the general absurdity of it all started to suck the fun out of it. Also, I know the book is a product of the early nineteenth century, but the fact that one of the characters is usually referred to simply as “the Jew” and even gets to be the butt of a big nose joke was driving me nuts. What’s that? Dickens was a child of his era, so cut him some slack? Well, I’m a child of my era, so take your own advice and cut me some slack while you’re at it.

Vivant Denon. Introduction by Peter BrooksNo Tomorrow

Vivant Denon was, among other things, the first director of the Louvre Museum, in charge of sorting and cataloging all the goodies that Napoleon stole from the Egyptians. A wing of the Louvre bears his name to this day. Denon was also “maybe, probably,” in the words of Peter Brooks, the author of No Tomorrow a thirty odd page long erotic masterpiece. The New York Review of Books has recently published a fine bilingual edition of the story with an introduction by Peter Brooks. The intellectual imprimatur provided by the publisher and the scholarly introduction makes it totally not skeevy that I’m writing about erotica on my blog.

There’s a lot to admire in Denon’s story and the way he tells it. As for the tale, a woman seduces a man, for pleasure, without negative consequence for either. As for the telling, Denon is delicate without ever being prudish, erotic without ever being explicit. It’s good clean fun for the adults in the family.

Surendra Verma. The Little Book of Maths, Theorems, Theories, and Things

This book covers a very wide variety of mathematical and logical puzzles and problems and more. The author even throws in a discussion of the Body-Mass Index*, presumably because it’s . . . expressed in numbers? Because it’s a little book, and because it’s trying to get to so many subjects, and because the author also likes to throw in limericks and factoids and anecdotes willy-nilly, this book treats each of its subjects in an extremely superficial way. I like limericks and factoids and anecdotes as much as the next guy, but there really wasn’t room for a lot of math in this book, or much opportunity for the author to make the case that mathematics is intrinsically interesting.

Let me also take a moment to plead with the publisher to fix the typos in this book before reprinting, if the book ever gets another shot at life. You know you’re in bad hands when you read the sentence: “No one has ever found an even number that can be expressed as the sum of two prime numbers” (p. 76). Oh, really? Cause I think I might be about to make mathematical history!


Author: peter
Date: 2010-01-18

Were my grandmother still alive, I’d give her your email and let her tell you all about oliver cromwell. But as she has passed away I will channel her ghost briefly: “Oliver CromwellisrottinginHellandhewastthedeviltotheIrishandduringthebattleoftheboynetheIrishhadtoeatratsandirelandwillbeirelandwhenenglandisbuggeredup.”

Author: DC
Date: 2010-01-18

Oliver is a nice name (Ollie for short of course.

Oliver Cromwell, as Peter points out, is the spawn of satan in Ireland, but the founder of democracy in England.

Author: Dana
Date: 2010-01-18

Your review of the Prospect Park book made me smile. Also liked that you wanted to be cut the same slack as Dickens. Dickenslack. Yeah.

Author: AWB
Date: 2010-02-13

Who the hell is Oliver Cromwell

If you’re answering a Jeopardy question, it’s “The man with the biggest measured brain mass in recorded history” (true fact!).

Otherwise, come on; it’s the guy who canceled Christmas and let the Jews back into England. Ever wonder why the Puritans found America convenient in the 17th century?

Author: Chris
Date: 2010-02-13

AWB, well, I was slightly exaggerating my ignorance about Cromwell, but just by a little. I’m not very strong on my British history. Book recommendations to remedy this shameful state of affairs?

Author: An
Date: 2010-02-14

Chris, your note about improbable events is positively Douglas Adamsesque.

On Cromwell, what you need is the Monty Python song. (search for “oliver cromwell”+song and you can listen to it too) http://history.wisc.edu/sommerville/123/123%20Cromwellsong.htm