What I Read On My Q409 Vacation

Amy and I just had an awesome week (mostly) off the grid at the Rosewood Mayakoba for my 44th birthday.  Lots of sleeping, running, massages, eating, consensual activities between two adults, and reading.  Lots of reading.


Hothouse Orchid: I started the trip off with some light mental floss to get in the swing of things.  Some of my favorite Stuart Woods characters, including Holly Barker and Teddy Fay kept me entertained for a few hours.

Saturn’s Children: I’ve been fascinated by robots since I read Asimov’s I, Robot as a small child.  In fact, I just realized I haven’t read it in 20+ years so it’s now magically on my reading robot (my Kindle) after two clicks of the mouse.  Charles Stross consistently blows my mind and Saturn’s Children delivers.  One shouldn’t underestimate how difficult it is to write the first person account of a sexbot in a world where humans (who the sexbots were created for) are extinct.  Oh, and it turns out that this particular sexbot is also an assassin, but doesn’t yet realize it.  As the book unfolds, the hierarchy of society that has been created by the robots is fascinating and Stross’ projections of the future are eerily believable.  It’s a long, steady romp through a bunch of classical science fiction ideas portrayed on a different backdrop.  Yummy.

Beginning Ruby on Rails (Wrox Beginning Guides): I have some strange fantasy about learning to program in Ruby on Rails.  I can’t quite figure it out, but I keep buying books about it.  In this case I read the first third and then skimmed the rest as this was a pretty crummy intro book.  My programming repertoire ends around 1989 as I’m proficient in BASIC, Pascal, Scheme, and DataFlex with some proficiency with CLU, Clarion, FoxPro, Paradox, and Access / VBA.  And then I stopped programming as I had too many other things to do in my first company.  I missed object oriented programming completely and find the level of complexity to do simple things in today’s languages completely baffling.  At some point Amy turned to me, asked me what I was reading, and then mocked me by referring to me as “Nerd Boy” for the rest of the day.  That was the point at which I started skimming.

Chasing the Bear: A Young Spenser Novel: I felt like some mental floss after being called Nerd Boy so I read the latest Robert Parker book about Spenser as a child.  It’s a kids book – aimed at diversifying Parker’s audience – and I thought he nailed it.  Even though I just turned 44, I easily slip back into my 14 year old boy persona and it was easy to love this book.

The Numerati: I can’t remember who recommended The Numerati but several people did.  I was disappointed.  I knew a few of the stories in depth already and Baker’s description of them exaggerated reality.  He made his points reasonably effectively, but since I knew the backstory it was tough to swallow the way he described a few of them. 

Strokes of Genius: Federer, Nadal, and the Greatest Match Ever Played: Wertheim writes almost as brilliantly as Federer and Nadal play tennis.  This was the story of the 2008 Wimbledon final and if you are a tennis fan, you must read this book.  ‘Nuff said.

The Scorpion’s Gate: When I read Breakpoint I decided that Richard A. Clark had a long and successful career as a cyberthriller writer in front of him.  After reading The Scorpion’s Gate, I realized I should have read it first since he does a great job of growing his characters (making him a broader writer than I’d expected).  While I don’t have a strong opinion on his government service track record, he’s certainly been around the block and has great depth in his storytelling.  Oh – and he makes his point beautifully with his story that we just have no clue how deep the rabbit hole in the middle east actually goes.  Great book and especially timely given our re-invasion of Afghanistan. 

Not Even Wrong: The Failure of String Theory and the Search for Unity in Physical Law for Unity in Physical Law: I can’t remember who recommended this one to me, but I really enjoyed it even though I only understood about 50% of it.  Peter Woit is a physicist at Columbia University who is highly critical of String Theory, writes a superb blog titled Not Even Wrong, and has a gift for explaining the very complex in a way that humans (albeit smart humans) can understand.  Physics was the only science that really captivated me in high school (although I loved my Biology teacher – I just didn’t love Biology) and I had Physics on my brain when I went to MIT.  This lasted about three weeks – my bubble burst when I got a 20 on my first 8.01 (freshman physics) test.  I don’t remember what class average was, but it was much higher than 20, so I’d solidly failed the test.  I went in my room and cried for about thirty minutes, decided physics wasn’t it for me, but got it together and did ok in the class.  Every now and then I read about physics history and am entranced (same with the history of mathematics).  While the vast majority of the string theory went over my head, the book was a joy to read as I like to fantasize about being a theoretical physicist (or mathematician) in a parallel universe.

As we flew home, I started reading a book about Zombies which Niel Robertson recommended to me – I’m halfway through and it’s incredible and deserves it’s own blog post which you’ll get separately.  Oh – and it’s not really about Zombies – it’s about humanity.  And zombies.

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  • Have you ever read any of David Foster Wallace's tennis essays? Both his autobiographical one and his profile of Michael Joyce are really fantastic. He also wrote a piece on Roger Federer for the NY Times a few years ago that's more hagiography than profile but is still quite good.

    I know Wallace's style is a bit polarizing, but I think he's written some of the best, most thoughtful essays on tennis out there.

    Links, in case you're interested:

    DFW on Federer: http://www.nytimes.com/2006/08/20/sports/playmaga

    The Michael Joyce essay (which I've only read in its Author's Cut form in his collection A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again, so I can't speak for how this holds together):

    Derivative Sport in Tornado Alley

    • DFW is an absolutely stunning writer and his tennis writing, including the essay on Federer, are unmatched in my opinion.  Great pointers.

  • For Rails, http://www.amazon.com/Rails-Way-Obie-Fernandez/dp… is great.

    Of course you'll probably want to keep the pickaxe book close by http://ruby-doc.org/docs/ProgrammingRuby/

    Don't get hung up on missing out on OO – you're not missing much and it tends to make things messier and more brittle than using a module/mixin based approach, although I'm sure I'll get flamed for that last comment.

    • Thanks – picking up The Rails Way right now.

      • It actually might help to learn ruby first.

        • I actually understand Ruby pretty well.  It’s “just a programming language” and I’ve learned my share.  In my experience, you don’t really learn a language until you use it for something. 

  • Ruby is a full on programming language, and even with frameworks like Rails, you're sitting in a text editor before you get to anything.

    If you want to "play" in this space (and I am completely biased, of course), then Drupal plus a few modules like the Content Construction Kit, Views, etc. actually let you build data structures, forms, lists, etc. — much like you can do in Access, except it's all through a Web UI.

    And I get called "King of the Dorks" on a regular basis.

    I browsed past that Stross book the other day and wasn't sure about it. Putting it on my "to read" list now.

  • I’ve had my romp in the forest with Drupal and it’s not for me. 

  • Good suggestions in the comments, I've been meaning to look in to Ruby, but am currently going through Javascript: The Good Parts, as Ross got me in to the Pre and I'm looking in to some app development.

    On the leisure side I'm part way through the last bit of the Baroque Cycle, but I had to send my Sony Reader away for the EPUB update on the older model.

    An astrophysicist friend of mine recommended Hyperspace, but I haven't carved out the time to check it out from the library and on to my Reader.

  • Hey Brad, thanks for sharing your recent books.

    If you're looking for another cool theoretical physics read that might be a bit easier to digest I *highly* recommend "Hyperspace", by Mikio Kaku: http://bit.ly/6c2bSe

    • Purchased – thanks for the recommendation!

      • Bill Mosby

        Have you ever read "The Road to Reality" by Roger Penrose? I thought I knew something about mathematics but I realize after reading it twice that I don't. It is still valuable for giving the reader a good feel for what physicists and mathematicians have gone through over the last few hundred years to arrive at today's picture of the universe.

        • Nope – buying it now.  Thanks for the recommendation.

          • Bill Mosby

            Sorry about the triple post, had no idea the site was taking them when it seemed not to be responding.

  • that hotel looks wicked. happy birthday. i am 44 too. lots of new hurts headed your way.

    • I’m hoping all the hurts are physical and not emotional.

  • Kyle

    Just a note on RoR, why not jump right in and follow a few screencasts from http://rubyonrails.org/. I think getting your feet wet is the only way, reading from an armchair, especially with lack of recent dev experience is probably not going to get anywhere. OOp in Rails is just that, it's on 'rails', you won't be designing any non-model class hierarchies, it'll be easy once you dive in.

  • Yup – totally agree.  I’ve got a project planned for the second half of December and we’ll see how it goes.

    • My team is using Rails for a few projects but I'm not proficient (PHP guy). To keep up, I occasionally watch screencasts from http://railscasts.com and have found that to be a fun/easy way to absorb some of the syntax.

  • zack

    So also, http://guides.rubyonrails.org/ has a pretty good breakdown of each part of rails. It's good as a reference that's not the api docs.

  • Bill Mosby

    " I missed object oriented programming completely and find the level of complexity to do simple things in today’s languages completely baffling."

    Ain't that the truth. Glad I'm not the only one who thinks it's complex. And I have followed the developments for about 10 years now, at least using Xcode and whatever it was called before that. Narrow exposure, perhaps. Still complex. I usually start from some sample code and build on it.

  • No prob – it’s a problem on my end.

  • Brad, this made me laugh. I, too, have fantasies about starting to program again and always thought it would be Ruby. I'm wondering where the spare time is going to come from. Maybe if I announce that I no longer do email so don't write me? I stopped programming in 1994. People still tease me because I'm stuck in a COBOL, DB2, CICS Visual Basic time warp. Oh, and I can do some mean Lotus (er, Excel) Macros! Happy birthday.

  • Anyone who can wrangle 1-2-3 macros is a programmer in my book.  I wrote my share of those in my time.

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