Freakonomics: A Rogue Economist Explores the yada yada

by Steven D. Levitt and Stephen J. Dubner (2005)

It was a bit of a phenomenon when it first came out, and I'm well known for my curmudgeonly resistance to popular phenomena, so forgive me for being so late to the party. I reached a point, sitting on a train carriage surrounded by no less than twenty-six commuters all obliviously reading the same book, where my resistance snapped and I simply had to buy a copy and join them.

Bit of a let-down, though. Not so much the wisdom of crowds, more like the lowest common denominator. There are cool ideas, here and there, which had me chuckling with glee, but these are few and far between, padded out monstrously, repeated almost verbatim in the introduction and then in the main text and then a third time in the 'bonus' sections tacked on to this revised edition. By the end I was sick of hearing about them. Roll it all up in the sort of rhetoric that feels the need to patiently explain that 'correlation is not causation!', and then illustrate it with pages of examples, and you'll see why I quickly lost patience.

Rating: 4/10. Rogue economist, indeed.

Avenue Q

Music and Lyrics: Robert Lopez and Jeff Marx. Director: Jason Moore. Noël Coward Theatre.

I promised myself I'd endure no more musicals, but somehow an exception seems appropriate for this beautiful idiocy. Sometimes muppets can say what men cannot.

Rating: 7/10

Broken Open: How Difficult Times Can Help Us Grow

Broken Open

by Elizabeth Lesser (2004)

It's the sort of nancy self-help psychobabble that would normally earn a derisive snort from my direction, but the onset of middle-age is broadening my horizons and dimming my discernment, so here I am, led to it by the memories of difficult times in my own life, now sufficiently distant for me to re-examine them, ponder how they changed me, and wonder how I could have better handled both my contributions and reactions to them.

To be sure, the author is at times a good deal more spiritual and mystical than I have any taste for - her visit to a trailer-park psychic may have been a revelationary and life-changing experience for her, but despite the poetic appeal of the events therein, it wasn't for me, and the specifics of the event would best have been omitted in trying to win me over.

But having said that, with a little patience, I found a great deal of value to be teased out of the other chapters. The overarching theme is undeniable: that we fill our lives with superficial distractions, in our efforts to keep up appearances, by design, we never have time or energy left over for the difficult and unpleasant tasks of serious introspection, of admitting and addressing our own flaws, or of providing the openness and honesty needed by those close to us.

Even when jolted out of our habitual routine by a painful external stimulus, such as personal injury or bereavement, in the hours or years of soul-searching that follow, it is all too easy to remain wrapped up in grief, anger or arrogance. But sometimes, in the depths of those dark times, people learn how to overcome their own ego, and discern what is truly important in their lives.

It sounds like a relentless downer, and it does indeed contain tales of woe, but each story told within contains a message of hope. Pretences drop, acceptance begins and honesty prevails. There are powerful lessons in both self-awareness and humility to be learned here, and I'm glad it found me when it did.

Rating: 6/10

Alright, can I turn the smartalec cynicism back on now?

Testing Extreme Programming

Testing Extreme Programming

by Lisa Crispin & Trip House (2003)

I grabbed this hoping that it might be the authoritative reference that its position in the 'Xtreme Programming' series suggests, and it does provides a descriptive overview of the testing responsibilities of both developers and more conventional testers on an Extreme Programming project. It touches all the bases, and even gets its hands dirty with significant demonstration coding for JUnit, the venerable Java testing framework. But beyond being a competent summary of the field, the book seems to fall a little between two stools, and not necessarily through any failing on the part of the authors.

If you're looking for more pragmatic guidance for test-driven development in your own project's technical environment, then obviously there's very little that would provide a better reward-to-investment ratio than consulting the XUnit documentation for your own particular language and platform, and implementing a test-driven project with it.

On the other hand, if you're looking for some more advanced topics, a deeper exploration of the philosophies behind test-driven development, of the nuanced differences between acceptance and unit tests, of how to know when tests should be duplicating the semantics of your code and when they should simply import directly from the tested code, or of the more hare-brained ideas that test-driven development seems to lead naturally into, such as genetic algorithms, then this book doesn't provide it, and arguably never could have, since a lot of these things, at the time of its writing, and arguably still, are still being thrashed out by the development community.

In short, there was nothing in here that we aren't already doing at Resolver. Boy am I grateful to be working with these guys. :)

Rating: 9/10 if you don't know how to do test-driven development. 3/10 if you're already doing it.

The Flight of the Horse

The Flight of the Horse

by Larry Niven (1969-1973) spoilers

I just got this back from long-term loan to Phil, and I just couldn't resist reading it clean through once again. It's a quick, light read, and I honestly couldn't really justify my love of it to a dispassionate third party. But Niven's stuff, particularly his early short stories like this, are always a nostalgia trip for me, representative of the ideas that got me into science fiction as a kid in the first place. He writes throwaway tales of quirky worlds, but each one is crafted with such a singularly consistent exploration of the logical implications of a single, simple premise, that with hindsight, suddenly complicit in the gag, you can almost see how each story's conclusion grew inescapably out of the very opening paragraphs.

It's very much Niven's modus operandi, and it lends itself well to a book like this, which is essentially a couple of sets of related short stories, in settings that verge on fantasy, but which abide by a strict internal logic that makes them indisputably hard SF to me.

The first sequence follows the fortunes of a 24th century post-apocalyptic time traveller, who is trying his best to investigate the past - our time, and pre-industrial ages - and bring back specimens of long-extinct species. Things never quite go according to plan - the horse he bags has an unexpected horn, and the whale he sought turns out to be a biblical leviathan, until eventually, he figures out the hard way what we the reader should have known all along - his time machine is screwy, slipping a little sideways in time every time he travels back to the past, sometimes a little, to worlds that differ from ours merely in happenstance, or sometimes further, to worlds that never could have been, in which mythical beasts roam and humanity is a very different breed.

The second series explores a similarly simple premise - that countless generations ago, deep in prehistory, when magic thrived and was a practical art in the world, a sorcerer discovers a terrible secret: that magic uses up energy from its surroundings, and that eventually this mana runs out, leaving an area sterile of magical potential, deadly to aged magicians, uninhabitable by mythical beasts. The knowledge is exploited to further various agendas, a vicious cycle that accelerates the process, that we the reader can see will inevitably lead to the fall of their civilisation, and the immeasurable dark ages before our own recorded history began.

It's the sort of stuff that people who don't 'do' SF clearly won't have any patience for. But if you can conjour up a little willing suspension, can overlook the writer's unsubtle early works, then the imagination and clarity of the tales shines through, weaving entertaining worlds of both humour and grandeur.

Rating: 7/10

London Symphony Orchestra's Brass Ensemble

The LSO is enjoying a sustained peak of success, and is apparently well-known for the talented and distinctive timbre of their brass section, so it was with some interest that I found myself ushered along to this opportunity to hear them strut their stuff from centre stage, unencumbered by the rest of the orchestra. It was my first visit to the 2,000 seat Barbican Hall, which as venues go could not be in sharper contrast to the Royal Albert Hall which hosted Susan and my last orchestral outing. Along with most people, I wince at the heavy-handed post-war modernist lines of its exterior, but nevertheless can't help but admire the boldness and consistency with which such ambitious architectural and social vision was applied to the entirely of the enourmous Barbican Estate within which it nestles.

And being modern isn't all bad, because the manifold engineered improvements to the concert hall's acoustics of the last couple of decades seem very much to have produced the desired effect - I would describe the clarity and range of sound to which my inexperienced ear was subjected as nothing short of startling.

The ten-strong array of trumpets, trombones and tuba played a selection to showcase their respective talents, with a zest and levity that I am informed is their usual stock in trade, including Paul Archibald's brass arrangement of Prokofiev's Ten Pieces for Piano, Op 12; Saint-Saëns' Carnival of the Animals; Debussy's Keyboard Pieces; James Maynard's Zoology and Gershwin's Porgy and Bess.

Not being overly familiar with orchestral music, the thing that struck me was how much the exercise seemed to celebrate the precision and craftsmanship that the musicians could bring to bear on the reproduction of the music, rather than the sheer visceral joy of the music itself which so predominag tes at a pop gig or night club. I'm told in no uncertain terms by those with more experience of brass ensembles that the experience of rhapsody is equally present, but I'm having trouble reconciling that with my impressions of an audience which was captivated and delighted, but also entirely motionless for the entire performance. Somehow in my mind, the idea of overwhelming musical ecstasy is inseparably associated with a irresistible, participatory physical motion.

Clearly I have much to learn. Baby steps. :)

A Case for Forward Error Correction

Announcing the first draft of our white paper, The Case For Forward Error Correction (PDF), outlining many of the revolutionary technical features which we leverage in our current project. I'll be submitting it for presentation at the proceedings of the British Computing Society, and at the ACM later this year. Many thanks to all of the contributors - getting this far has been a lot of work, With special thanks to SCIgen.

Diet Guru

Diet Guru Plus

A friend of a friend puts his artistic endeavours online, and what do I do? That's right, I frak with it. Presenting, Diet Guru Plus, brought to you courtesy of the well-known 'mashup' copyright exception. Hurrah for the de facto creative commons! Original artwork by Thomas Libetti.

Deja Vu

A typical hardass cop - with time goggles. In a Hummer.

Director: Tony Scott. Writer: Bill Marsilii & Terry Rossio. Starring: Denzel Washington, Paula Patton. 2006.

Internet Movie
Database If you thought it was just a trick of the mind, prepare yourself for the truth.

Turns out 'the truth' is a half-baked sci-fi thriller, with one or two geek-cool moments involving a roving POV camera trick which can peer into any nook or cranny you like, so long as it's exactly four and a half days in the past. But there is no desire to even attempt any sort of coherent explanation, or even try to consistently stick to the logical implications of such a premise. It just forms the basis for some expensive effects and the opportunity for Denzel to strut his stuff as a typical hardass cop. If it wasn't for the fact I was trapped on a plane with three hundred other unbearable people anyway, I'd want my two hours back. Not even forgettable, more like regrettable, even for a sci-fi dork like me.

Rating: 2/10