Tuesday, December 16, 2014

On the Final Passing of Dr. Dobb's

Back in the days when magazines about computer programming were a thing that existed, there was only one I was interested in reading: Dr. Dobb's Journal. It was full of code, and technical subjects, and witty writing about code and technical subjects. I learned quite a few bits (no pun intended) of technique and knowledge from DDJ back in my early years learning about and being a programmer. I undoubtedly owe some of what I am now to the work they did then.

I will admit I stopped reading DDJ years ago. Computers got more complex; low level programming content was slowly taken over by library overviews and process articles. The speed of the web, and the explosion of programming's footprint ate all the magazines' lunches. But I haven't forgotten how I used to feel looking into those pages and thinking that maybe I could be that good someday.

I don't know if I am that good now. I'm too close to the subject to be able to tell. It did inspire me to keep trying to write about programming, which gave me an even bigger respect for those who do it well. Code can be such a dry, technical subject, and yet DDJ managed to be at its best informative, inspiring, and humorous.

The magazine itself has been out of print for many years now. Today we learned that the website carrying on the name will stop producing content at the end of the year. The programming world will carry on of course, but we shouldn't forget the value of Running Light Without Overbyte.

Saturday, November 29, 2014

Bookworming: The Peripheral

The Peripheral, William Gibson, *****
A note on bias: Gibson is probably my favorite author.
The Peripheral manages to both continue the style of his more recent near-future novels and make a return to more obvious sci-fi. And what a return it is. In many ways, this is the most straightforward of his novels that I have read, though that isn't to say it is a light read.

At its core lies something of a murder mystery, though as so often is Gibson's way, it comes off as much a milieu piece as anything else. And though an older lady character gets involved in the investigation, the story has much more in common with "Ghost in the Shell" than "Murder, She Wrote".

On first brush, I am struck by the reflection of some of the same themes that go all the way back to Neuromancer. The power and other-ness of wielding vast sums of money. Technology not solving the human condition, but extending it, and life on the fringes contrasted with high society. But The Peripheral is a very, very different book than Neuromancer. There are movements of economic and state forces, much more mundane tech alongside the military-capable and esoteric elements, and as interesting and varied a collection of characters as Gibson has ever given us.

For my tastes, this one is right up there with Pattern Recognition in excellence and I will certainly be revisiting it in the future.

Headline Hunting

"Man injured by Amsterdam pop-up toilet" For those who doubt that we live in the future, there are places where toilets rise from the ground to provide relief to drunken pedestrians. And when angered (or, you know, malfunctioning) they can spring forth with enough might to throw a moped. And though it's a bummer for the guy that got injured, he has a great story to tell forever.

Monday, November 10, 2014

Snarky Side Notes

On this fine Monday evening, I am tired and cranky. Allow me to share that cranky with you fine folks, briefly.

President Obama came out in support of Net Neutrality today. I suppose that's pretty much the end of that, the megacorps have won again, because if there's one group that cares less about what's right for consumers than the corps, it's Congress, and because Not-What-Our-Opponent-Says seems to be the only political platform left in America.

That they call it "work-life" balance instead of "life-work" balance tells you pretty much all you need to know.

As a programmer with opinions about the tools he uses, I'm appalled that the business application world (the silent majority of programming) seems to be moving from the endless purgatory of C++ into the fiery pool of Javascript and CSS.

Sunday, October 26, 2014

The 80s Make Everything More Epic

Here is one of the more nerdy pattern matches that my brain has ever inflicted on me. Ladies and gentlemen, how to use the technobabble from 80s cartoon Voltron (Lion version) as a checklist for starting your car:

  • Insert keys (keys)
  • Activate interlock (seatbelt)
  • Dynotherms connected (ignition)
  • Infracells are up (parking break)
  • Megathrusters are go (shift into gear)

And now you have something to look forward to as you go to work tomorrow.

Saturday, October 25, 2014

Quote of the Moment: An Apocalyptic Review

"Every generation conjures its own apocalypses and dystopias. They give us an index of the collective anxieties of the era."

The New Yorker takes a look at one of my favorite classic post-apocalypse novels, A Canticle for Leibowitz, examining how the author's real life experience with apocalyptic events (World War II) influenced the book and his life.

Saturday, October 18, 2014

This Year's Halloween Costume

The time has come once again for me to pick my hypothetical Halloween costume. With wars and ebola stepping up the real life scary, I want something that will really upset people, maybe even provoke incoherent outbursts and irrational rage. The choice is clear: I will be a political campaign ad.

Bookworming: House of Leaves

House of Leaves, Mark Z. Danielewski, **
How to start describing a book with a dedication which reads "This is not for you."? At it's heart lies the tidy horror story told in a documentary made by a photojournalist of what happened when he and his family moved into a house that was somehow bigger on the inside than the outside. Because of the edited nature of a documentary, and because the documentary is of the creator's family, much of the motivations of those involved are unclear. It's therefore a good thing that we the readers are presented this narration in the context of an academic examination of the film, covering copious theories, diversions, and many, many annotated footnotes. Except that this academic treatise is presented to us by a man on the fringes of society who found said documents and adds his own commentary in yet more annotations and his own pages-long narrative diversions. He quickly lets us know that the author of the extended essay appears to be making up many of his references, and in fact there is no evidence the documentary exists. And yet, the man's notes give more and more evidence of mental decline and obsession with the document he found. And if that weren't enough the book's "editors" chime in with the dark context of the compiler's history, leading to further questions about what might be real and what not.

The word "house" always appears blue.

And so goes House of Leaves: metaphor within metaphor, unreliable narrator within unreliable narrator. Narrative chaining to analysis chaining to footnote, footnote of the footnote, and reference to the copious, seemingly unrelated appendices. This is less a novel than a work of art trying to deconstruct a wide variety of writing styles from within. The central horror story is a genuinely great one which taps directly into a subversion of home being a safe place. The entire book seems meant to have a similar effect on book lovers. It is more than just a non-linear style fostered by the jumps from main content to footnotes to end notes and back, the portions that represent the visual documentary also take on the aspects of that tale, changing orientation on the page, even flowing "through" the pages at one point.

So what did I actually think of it? Well, it certainly wan't an easy read. I can appreciate the artistry of it to some extent, but I also suspect that I lack the literary training or exposure to really appreciate some of the levels of irony (or is it nihilism?) going on within the pages. In the end, I can say, yes there is a good story in here, maybe even more than one, but digging it out is work. Judging by the comments on Goodreads, it is work you will either find rewarding or utterly pretentious. The one thing I can confidently say: this was the oddest book I have ever read.