Category Archives: Books

Meme: Books I have read

Have you read more than 6 of these books? The BBC believes most people will have read only 6 of the 100 books here. How do your reading habits stack up?

Instructions: Copy this entire document. Look at the list and put an ‘Yes’ after those you have read [I bolded them too]. (Watching the movie DOES NOT COUNT)

Pride and Prejudice – Jane Austen – Yes
The Lord of the Rings – JRR Tolkien – Yes
Jane Eyre – Charlotte Bronte – No
Harry Potter series – JK Rowling – Yes
To Kill a Mockingbird – Harper Lee – Yes
The Bible – No
Wuthering Heights – Emily Bronte – No
1984 – George Orwell – No
His Dark Materials – Philip Pullman – No (only the first one “The Golden Compass”)
Great Expectations – Charles Dickens – No
Little Women – Louisa M Alcott – No
Tess of the D’Urbervilles – Thomas Hardy – No
Catch 22 – Joseph Heller – No
Complete Works of Shakespeare – No, just a few in high school
Rebecca – Daphne Du Maurier – No
The Hobbit – JRR Tolkien – Yes
Birdsong – Sebastian Faulk – No
Catcher in the Rye – JD Salinger – Yes
The Time Traveler’s Wife – Audrey Niffenegger – No
Middlemarch – George Eliot – No
Gone With The Wind – Margaret Mitchell – No
The Great Gatsby – F Scott Fitzgerald – Yes
Bleak House – Charles Dickens – No
War and Peace – Leo Tolstoy – No
The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy – Douglas Adams – Yes
Brideshead Revisited – Evelyn Waugh – No
Crime and Punishment – Fyodor Dostoyevsky – No
Grapes of Wrath – John Steinbeck – No
Alice in Wonderland – Lewis Carroll – No
The Wind in the Willows – Kenneth Grahame – Yes
Anna Karenina – Leo Tolstoy – No
David Copperfield – Charles Dickens – No
Chronicles of Narnia – CS Lewis – No (3 of the 7)
Emma – Jane Austen – No
Persuasion – Jane Austen – No
The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe – CS Lewis – Yes (Um… part of the Chronicles or Narnia above)
The Kite Runner – Khaled Hossein – No
Captain Corelli’s Mandolin – Louis De Bernieres – No
Memoirs of a Geisha – Arthur Golden – No
Winnie the Pooh – AA Milne – No
Animal Farm – George Orwell – Yes
The Da Vinci Code – Dan Brown – Yes
One Hundred Years of Solitude – Gabriel Garcia Marquez – No
A Prayer for Owen Meaney – John Irving – No
The Woman in White – Wilkie Collins – No
Anne of Green Gables – LM Montgomery – No
Far From The Madding Crowd -Thomas Hardy – No
The Handmaid’s Tale – Margaret Atwood – No
Lord of the Flies – William Golding – No
Atonement – Ian McEwan – No
Life of Pi – Yann Martel – Yes
Dune – Frank Herbert – No
Cold Comfort Farm – Stella Gibbons – No
Sense and Sensibility – Jane Austen – No
A Suitable Boy – Vikram Seth – No
The Shadow of the Wind – Carlos Ruiz Zafon – No
A Tale Of Two Cities – Charles Dickens – No
Brave New World – Aldous Huxley – No
The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night – Mark Haddon – No
Love In The Time Of Cholera – Gabriel Garcia Marquez – No
Of Mice and Men – John Steinbeck – No
Lolita – Vladimir Nabokov – No
The Secret History – Donna Tartt – No
The Lovely Bones – Alice Sebold – No
Count of Monte Cristo – Alexandre Dumas – No
On The Road – Jack Kerouac – No
Jude the Obscure – Thomas Hardy – No
Bridget Jones’s Diary – Helen Fielding – No
Midnight’s Children – Salman Rushdie – No
Moby Dick – Herman Melville – No
Oliver Twist – Charles Dickens – No
Dracula – Bram Stoker – Yes
The Secret Garden – Frances Hodgson Burnett – No
Notes From A Small Island – Bill Bryson – No
Ulysses – James Joyce – No
The Inferno – Dante – No
Swallows and Amazons – Arthur Ransome – No
Germinal – Emile Zola – No
Vanity Fair – William Makepeace Thackeray – No
Possession – AS Byatt – No
A Christmas Carol – Charles Dickens – No
Cloud Atlas – David Mitchell – No
The Color Purple – Alice Walker – No
The Remains of the Day – Kazuo Ishiguro – No
Madame Bovary – Gustave Flaubert – No
A Fine Balance – Rohinton Mistry – No
Charlotte’s Web – EB White – No
The Five People You Meet In Heaven – Mitch Albom – No
Adventures of Sherlock Holmes – Sir Arthur Conan Doyle – No
The Faraway Tree Collection – Enid Blyton – No
Heart of Darkness – Joseph Conrad – No
The Little Prince – Antoine De Saint-Exupery – No
The Wasp Factory – Iain Banks – No
Watership Down – Richard Adams – No
A Confederacy of Dunces – John Kennedy Toole – No
A Town Like Alice – Nevil Shute – No
The Three Musketeers – Alexandre Dumas – Yes
Hamlet – William Shakespeare – Yes
Charlie and the Chocolate Factory – Yes
Les Miserables – Victor Hugo – Yes

So I’ve read 18 of the 100 books. But the Harry Potter series is seven books, and Lord of the Rings is three more! That should count for something. And the entire works of Shakespeare shouldn’t be listed as a single book.


Book Review: Memories of the Future Vol. 1

Star Trek: The Next Generation is one of my all-time favourite TV shows. I watched it religiously when it was on in the late 80’s and early 90’s and I bought each season on DVD as soon as it was released. I also enjoy former TNG cast member Wil Wheaton’s writing, so imagine my excitement when he started writing reviews of TNG episodes a couple of years ago. He wrote an article about every ten years or so – OK, it was more often than that, but that’s how it seemed when you were patiently (or not) waiting for the next one to come out. He posted links to them on his blog, and then gathered them all up, did a few more, and put them in a book called Memories of the Future. There will be at least two volumes; each covering one half of the first season of TNG; only Volume One has been released. I don’t know how much further he’ll go – I asked him on twitter if he was planning on continuing the books or podcasts right up to season 7, but he never responded. Geez, you get 1.6 million followers and suddenly you don’t respond to questions? Bastard. I’d respond to you, @wilw.

Anyway, this book is a must for TNG fans. Wil rips each episode apart, telling you what was good and what was bad, which is fun to read because there were a number of really bad episodes in the first season. There is a lot of humour in the episode recaps and technobabble, and I found the behind-the-scenes memories really interesting.

Wil also gives some insight into the whole TV industry and how it works – like when person X is writes a script for an episode, but then their original script is hacked and changed without their knowledge by someone else who doesn’t get credit. By the end of the process, the writing of this really bad episode is still credited to person X, who really had nothing to do with how bad it is. It seems unfair, but that’s how it works. Wil pulls no punches, naming names on who were the worst writers, directors, and guest actors that he worked with.

Wil is very complimentary to the other cast members of TNG, particularly Patrick Stewart and Brent Spiner, who are indeed excellent actors. One person he’s not very complimentary to, however, is himself. He seems convinced that he was the worst actor on the set, and that a large contributing factor to that is his youth. A number of times he mentions that if he wasn’t such a self-absorbed teenager at the time, he might have done a better job. Of course “self-absorbed teenager” is a redundancy, and Wil himself does acknowledge this at one point, when he tells the story of apologizing to (I think) Patrick Stewart for being the way he was when he was a teenager and not appreciating things as he should have. Stewart tells him that everyone at the time understood that he was a teenager, and that that attitude came with the territory. Of course, some of this self-deprecation could just be modesty – he only makes a point of mentioning when he did a lousy job. Perhaps there were a number of episodes where he thought he did a great job, but he decided to keep the “Wow, my performance was really great in this episode” thoughts to himself.

Wil was also doing weekly podcasts called “Memories of the Futurecast”, where he would read part of his review of one episode a week. In many cases, he’d expand on the stuff in the book, or mention memories that had come up since the book was written or that he didn’t include in the book for whatever reason. Those were pretty cool too – Wil is a good storyteller and is also pretty funny, though I find sometimes that the funny loses steam fairly quickly. In one or two of the podcasts he mimicked a conversation between himself and some pretend person – the first two or three lines were pretty funny, but then he kept going and the next seven or eight lines were just not. More is not always better. It’s kind of like my seven-year-old: “if I say or do something and daddy laughs, then obviously if I do it every ten seconds for the next hour, it remains funny.” Wil doesn’t go that far, but there have been a few times where he starts one of these jokes or “conversations” and after the second or third line I think to myself “OK, that was funny, but stop there. Please just stop there.” and he doesn’t. These long drawn-out jokes don’t appear in the book though, just the podcast.

The one thing I don’t like about the book is the language – there’s a fair bit of cursing and some sexual language and stuff like that. This is true of all of his podcasts actually, he’s quite the little potty mouth. It doesn’t bother me directly – I’m no language prude, and some parts of this book are quite hilarious because of the language. Example: when talking about Q giving them the whole Farpoint thing as a test, Wil explains why this will not be a problem: “in Starfleet, we save the universe and fuck the green alien chick before breakfast. We got this one.” My problem is that my 10- and 7-year-old sons are both TNG fans (ironically, Wesley Crusher is their favourite character along with Data) and I think they would get a big kick out of some of these stories, but it’s just not appropriate for kids that age to read about anyone fucking green alien chicks, or any other colour of alien chick for that matter. Perhaps I can find some stories that the boys would like and read parts to them.

As I said, if you’re a TNG fan, you owe it to yourself to check this book out, or at the very least, find the reviews through his blog. I am anxiously awaiting volume 2 and any subsequent volumes.

Fire, and the Goblet thereof

My kids, like millions of other kids worldwide, love the whole Harry Potter world. Well, they both love the movies (though they haven’t seen Order of the Phoenix yet), and Ryan loves the books as well. We started reading the first book to them sometime last year, and Nicholas (who turned six last Saturday — happy birthday munchkin!) tried to listen for a while but quickly got bored, and by the time we were halfway through the book, he’d given up listening altogether. Ryan, however, listened intently right up until we finished the seventh book a few weeks ago.

We watched Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire the other day. I think it’s my least favourite of all the movies thus far (Chamber of Secrets is probably my favourite), but I still enjoyed it. One puzzling thing about that book/movie is the wonderfully-named Fleur Delacour — I don’t remember the book so much, but in the movie, very little is said about her magical ability, just her beauty. Presumably she’s very magically talented, or she wouldn’t have been chosen for the Triwizard tournament. However once in the tournament, she withdraws from the second task, and in the third task, after wandering around the maze looking terrified, she is “eaten” by the maze itself, forcing Harry to save her. Rowling made the main female character, Hermione, the smartest student in her year, and also made all of the chasers on the Gryffindor Quidditch team female, so it seems odd that she decided to make the only female champion the weakest of the four — including Harry, who is three years younger.

Another thing that puzzled me about the Triwizard tournament is the maze itself. Other than trying not to “lose yourself” (as Dumbledore says) and trying to avoid those who have, it’s just a maze. The first task was to get past a dragon (though it would have been more fair if all four of them had had to face the same type of dragon), and the second required them to breathe underwater for an hour and get past mer-people and grindylows, and the third one is just a maze? Sure, it’s a big maze, but that doesn’t require strong magical skill, just a good memory and a lot of luck.

The most puzzling thing, however, is the entire premise of the story. Barty Crouch Jr. kidnaps Moody, one of the most powerful aurors around, and then takes his place using polyjuice potion for the entire school year (fooling Dumbledore, who’s known Moody for many years), and bewitches the Goblet of Fire to spit out Harry’s name, and essentially arranges all three tasks so that Harry will win, and turns the Triwizard Cup into a portkey, all so that Harry will touch the Cup and be transported to the graveyard where the spell to bring Voldemort back will be performed. Why not make something else a portkey and just get Harry to touch it? Why not impersonate Moody for ten minutes and say “Harry, come to my office”, and then kidnap Harry and take him to the graveyard? And why does Cedric come out of Voldemort’s wand during the battle? Voldemort didn’t kill Cedric, Wormtail did.

Fleur’s name is just one of a number of very clever names in the Potter world: her school Beauxbatons, her headmistress Mme. Maxime, the “northern European” school Durmstrang, Herbology professor Sprout, the medium Sybill Trelawney, the werewolf Remus Lupin, and Lucius and Draco Malfoy, to name but a few. The wizard prison Azkaban sounds kind of like Alcatraz — both prisons are on islands, and both had the reputation of being escape-proof. In the seventh book, there was reference to another wizard prison called Nurmengard, and I was actually a little uncomfortable with how close that name was to that of Nuremburg. Anyway, I think my favourite name in the whole series is that of one of the members of the Order of the Phoenix. It’s not particularly meaningful (or maybe it is and I just haven’t noticed), but I just love saying the name: Kingsley Shacklebolt.

Audiobooks and a milestone

I signed up the other day with, which is like the of audiobooks. Don’t know if I’ll continue the subscription, but just for signing up, I got a free audiobook. The one I chose was “A Brief History of Time” by Stephen Hawking, which is a book I’ve been meaning to get for a long time. I listened to the first 20 minutes or so of it on the drive home yesterday (it’s over 5 hours long), and was instantly hooked. It’s fascinating stuff. Right now he’s talking about the history of people’s beliefs and discoveries about the solar system, like how people assumed that the Sun, moon, and planets all revolved around the Earth, and that the Earth was a cylindrical disk. Then he not only explains that people changed their beliefs as new information became available, but he describes what that new information was and how it conflicted with the existing “body of knowledege”. He does all this in a writing style that is not only interesting, but done in a way that the average layperson can understand it without feeling talked down to.

Hawking, obviously, does not read the book himself. It’s read by a guy named Michael Jackson (no, not that one), who has an English accent. This kind of threw me off; I always assumed that Hawking was American because of his speaking computer, which speaks with an American accent. Hawking is indeed British, so it makes sense to get someone British to read the book.

The book so enthralled me during the drive home that I completely forgot about an imminent milestone, which must have passed on the 401 somewhere between Hwy 8 and the service station between Cambridge and Guelph. The milestone was the rolling over of the odometer (100,000 km) on my car. The car is a 2004 Sunfire, which I picked up in early July of 2004. 100,000 km in 3 years 3 months comes out to about 2564 km / month, 592 km / week. Assuming 8 trips to work per week (I work at home on Fridays), this comes out to about 74 km / trip. Of course, this doesn’t take non-work trips or vacations into account, but it’s still eerily accurate, since the trip is about 65 km each way.

Spiritual Machines

I’m in the middle of re-reading The
Age of Spiritual Machines
by Ray Kurzweil. It’s a very interesting read: all
about what might (will?) happen in the very near future when computers are able
to process information as fast as or faster than the human brain. Will they
begin to actually think? Will they become self-aware? Will they grow
a conscience? Will they, as the title suggests, become spiritual?

One of the things I found most fascinating was his descriptions of how the
human brain works — sometimes he puts this process into computer terms,
which is good for geeks like me. This particular part stuck with me:

When a batter hits a fly ball, it follows a path that can be predicted from
the ball’s initial trajectory, spin, and speed, as well as wind conditions. The
outfielder, however, is unable to measure any of these properties directly and
has to infer them from his angle of observation. To predict where the ball will
go, and where the fielder should also go, would appear to require the solution
of a rather overwhelming set of complex simultaneous equations. These equations
need to be constantly recomputed as new visual data streams in. How does a
ten-year-old Little Leaguer accomplish this, with no computer, no calculator,
no pen and paper, having taken no calculus classes, and having only a few seconds
of time?

The answer is, she doesn’t. She uses her neural nets’ pattern-recognition
abilities, which provide the foundation for much of skill formation. The neural
nets of the ten-year-old have had a lot of practice in comparing the observed
flight of the ball to her own actions. Once she has learned the skill, it becomes
second nature, meaning that she has no idea how she does it. Her neural nets
have gained all the insights needed: Take a step back if the ball has gone
above my field of view; take a step forward if the ball is below a certain level
in my field of view and no longer rising,
and so on. The human ballplayer is
not mentally computing equations. Nor is there any such computation going on
unconsciously in the player’s brain. What is going on is pattern
recognition, the foundation of most human thought.

One key to intelligence is knowing what not to compute. A
successful person isn’t necessarily better than her less successful peers at
solving problems; her pattern recognition facilities have just learned what
problems are worth solving.

It should be somewhat obvious, but it was a bit of a revelation to me when I
first read it. Now it seems that with neural net software, computers are starting
to do pattern recognition almost as well as humans. Kurzweil talks in this
book (which is 6 years old, BTW) about computers that can transcribe human
speech (spoken at a normal speed) with almost perfect accuracy, and computers
that can recognize faces — to the point where some banks trust
their computers to perform face recognition on people to provide automatic
cheque cashing, i.e. if the computer fails, real money is being given
to the wrong people. The bank would have to be pretty damn confident in the
face recognition software to make that puppy available to the general public.

Book Review: IPv6 Network Programming

I bought a book on IPv6 from recently, and received it today. (I actually bought two, but the second hasn’t shipped yet.) IPv6 is still fairly new technology, and the one book I have that mentions is doesn’t have enough details — If I’m going to be the IPv6 expert at work (which I suppose I already am – scary), I think I need to have a better knowledge than I currently do.

Anyway, I looked over this book, and the first thing I noticed was the typeface – it looked like the book was written on a typewriter. I quickly discovered that this was because I was looking at an appendix – an RFC describing some aspect of IPv6. RFCs (Request for Comments) are written by the Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF), and are used to decide on standards, like the “official” definitions of various network protocols and stuff like that. Four different RFCs relating to IPv6 were included in the book, and it looks like they took the RFC text directly from the web site with no reformatting. There are five other articles included as well, all of which are also freely available on the web. Once I got to the actual meat of the book (i.e. stuff the author actually wrote himself, I was very disappointed. There are only 80 pages of actual content in this 361-page book, for which I paid (OK, Sybase paid) $50 US. Actually, in the end, nobody will have paid for it, since I’m returning it.

It looks like the content itself is fairly useful, so I wouldn’t mind ripping out the first 80 pages, sending the rest back, and asking to refund 78% of my purchase price (80 pages out of 361 is 78%). I doubt they’d go for that. I did write a review on, giving the book only 2 stars out of 5. We’ll see if they post my review.

The other book I ordered is from O’Reilly Press, which has produced a lot of good computer books in the past, so I’m a little more hopeful that it will be a keeper. According to amazon, it’s expected to ship sometime in June (the order was placed on March 17), so I’ll post a review of that book when I get it.

Update: My review has already appeared on the amazon page for the book.

Being sick sucks

I missed work yesterday and I’m staying home again today. Monday at work, my throat was a bit sore, and then on the drive home, I started to get kind of light-headed and dizzy. Luckily it wasn’t too bad and didn’t affect my driving, but after dinner it got worse. Monday night I didn’t get much sleep, and I lay on the couch or in bed most of yesterday. I slept better last night, and the dizziness is mostly gone, but my throat is still sore. Someone at work suggested I get swabbed for strep, but I’ve had strep a couple of times before, and this feels different. With strep, my throat felt all cut up – like I had swallowed razor blades. This feels more like swelling. Plus, Gail was off work a couple of weeks ago with similar symptoms (not sure why it took 2 weeks to get to me), and she was swabbed for strep, but the test came back negative. If this continues into tomorrow, however, I’m going to the doctor and getting a swab.

We were at Jeff & Kerri’s place on the weekend celebrating Lynda’s birthday, and then on Monday, Kerri sent out an email saying that Lynda was sick with, um, let’s just say various gastrointestinal issues. Then on Tuesday, two other people who were at the party also got sick. I think it’s a little weird that I’m also sick, but not with the same thing, though I think I’d take a sore throat over what they have any day.

At least I got a lot of reading done yesterday – I finally finished The Dark Tower series by Stephen King. The Dark Tower consists of seven books, the first of which (The Gunslinger) was published in 1982, and the last of which (The Dark Tower) was published 22 years later. It’s a really interesting series – one of the most interesting things about it is that Stephen King himself shows up in the story as a relatively major character – and it’s the real Stephen King, not just a guy with that name. So you have a book by Stephen King called The Dark Tower, and in that book, there’s a character named Stephen King who’s writing a book called The Dark Tower. I won’t explain any more about that here – it would take too long – but suffice it to say that the story in the seventh book kind of explains why it took 17 years to write the first four books and only 2 years to write the last three.

Say thankya.

Things are more like they are now than they ever used to be

I remember a time, not too long ago, when a 540 MB hard drive cost just over $500 – the rule of thumb for disk storage at the time was roughly a buck a meg. Right now at Factory Direct, you can get a 250 GB hard drive for $119, which is less than 50 cents a gig. Which means that in less than ten years, the price of hard disk storage has come down by a factor of two thousand.

Our first computer (in 1982) was a Commodore VIC-20, with 3.5 kB of usable RAM, and the only storage was tape casettes. It cost something like $400. After a while, we got a 16 kB expansion cartridge, and I didn’t know what to do with all the extra memory. Eventually (maybe 1985) we moved up to an XT with an 8 kHz processor, some terribly small amount of RAM (definitely measured in kB, not MB), and two floppy drives (no hard disk) – this machine cost over 2 grand. My dad bought a 10 MB hard disk a little while later, and we were on the leading edge of computing. Now, twenty years later, there’s a far more powerful computer embedded in your average vending machine, and I have a little two-inch-long thing that hangs on my key chain that can store 128 MB.

It’s almost scary to think what computing will be like 10 or 20 years from now. This post kind of reminds me of the book The Age of Spiritual Machines by Ray Kurzweil, which I read a year or two ago (and inspired the album Spiritual Machines by Our Lady Peace). Kurzweil talks about how much more powerful (and cheaper) computers are getting, and eventually, they will be as powerful and fast as the human brain — and what happens then? Will people start getting microprocessor implants to enhance memory, intelligence, or even things like strength or muscular endurance? How many such implants can one have before the line between human and machine gets blurry? A really interesting read.