‘It Makes You Think’

Score: 5/5

Yuval Noah Harari
£6.99

I finally got around to (and finally finished...) this tome. I’ve been hearing a lot about it recently (which is odd, given it was written in 2014), and I kept pushing it nearer the top of my to-read pile.

In many ways it’s fascinating. A history book, it takes a very high-level, long-term view of humanity, how we came about, the big changes we’ve made, the problems we’ve faced, and most of all what we are.

It has a certain glib-ness though. I’m fond of the phrase ‘I think you’ll find it’s a bit more complicated than that’, and the author does often go into detail about how complicated some of the things are. But at other times, he’s sweeping in his generalisations. It’s hard to see parts of it as incisive when other parts have made you go ‘Hang on a minute, you left out something important...’

That said, it did certainly make me stop, think, and question some things. That’s what I found most beneficial about the book - it’s perspective, the way it often took an entirely different viewpoint on things I’d take for granted.

It’s a nice way to challenge some assumptions.

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‘Compares Poorly With Renko’

Score: 4/5

Tom Rob Smith
£6.49

I liked this book but I couldn’t help always comparing it with another: Gorky Park.

Both feature life in Communist Russia, and the constant threat of the security services even to someone involved in the security service. Both feature a flawed main character trying to do the right thing. This book maybe went in to a bit more detail about life in Russia at the time, but for some reason I found Gorky Park more credible and compelling.

I have no idea how much faith to put in that though. I have no idea if either author ever visited the USSR, never mind lived there under such conditions. But I suppose the best way I can explain it is that this book felt like it was written by someone who had read about the experience of the USSR but who had never actually been there.

That said, I’ve never been to the USSR either and this book is much more detailed and compelling than anything I’d come up with.

There’s just something about Arkady Renko that I understood more. It’s not that the characters in this book don’t have depth, don’t have other dimensions, it’s just I seem to relate to Renko better.

The book itself was compelling - quite a page turner.

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‘It’s Not For Me’

Score: 3/5

Marguerite Reed
£1.96

I just didn’t warm to this book. Didn’t really warm to or appreciate the main character, or what was driving her to make the decisions she made.

This probably says more about me than her though. Fair enough!

My aversion to spoilers is stopping me having a minor rant about one aspect of the book. Overall, well, I’m going with: It’s not for me. It may be for you though.

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I’ve been playing with Scheme lately, and the book ‘Beautiful Racket’ made me want to learn a bit more about parsing and interpreting in general, and creating my own domain-specific languages.

When I was at university, there was only one book for this - the ‘dragon book’. It has been a long time since I read it, and I’ve pretty much forgotten all about BNF notation and everything else since then. And I’ve no idea where my copy of the book ended up.

The good news is that in the decades since my reading the book, they've produced a second edition. And it’s not just a fancy re-print, it has new chapters and algorithms, bringing it all up to date with when it was published. And instead of the red dragon on the cover of the first edition, there’s a purple dragon on the second edition.

The bad news is that it’s out of print.

'No problem’, thought I. ‘I’ll just order a used copy from Amazon...'

And here’s where the tale takes an odd turn.

I ordered the book from an Amazon reseller, AmysBookstoreUK. Three days later my order was cancelled. No reason was given, I just got a note from Amazon that my order was cancelled.

Hmm.

I tried again. This time I ordered from Meridian Bookstore. And it was despatched!

Then I got an email from them:

I wanted to inform you that since we have not heard from you regarding this order, we had to cancel this order and we issued you a full refund. The reason is that we discovered the last copy of this item was substantially water-damaged and it wasn't in a condition we could ship to our customers.  You may have received a dispatch notification from Amazon, simply disregard that notification since it was sent in error.

And my money was refunded.

I’m not sure I’ve ever had a reseller cancel an order on me before this, and here two resellers did it for the same item. What was going on?

So I tried again. And this time I was really careful.

I checked the Wikipedia page for the book. It lists the actual book website, which I’ve never been able to connect to, and the publishers page for the book, which requires Flash (remember Flash‽), as well as giving the second edition’s ISBN as 0-321-48681-1.

It turns out that ISBN is used by the second edition in the US, but also used by the ‘international’ edition in other parts of the world. And according to some reports, the international edition isn’t up to the quality of the regular second edition.

This review refers NOT to the original 2006 edition but to the 2014 re-print by Pearson India, via DKIndia. ISBN - 978-93-325-1866-7. The inside page of this book reads "This edition is authorised for sale only in India, BanglAdesh, Bhutan, Pakistan, Nepal, Sri Lanka and the Maldives. Circulation of this edition outside of these territories is UNAUTHORISED." Therefore this edition should not be available to us in the UK.

The back of this Indian edition is even more ominous where it says "For these special editions, the editorial team at Pearson has collaborated with educators across the world to address a wide range of subjects and requirements, equipping students with the best possible learning tools" (MH so far so good). It continues ....

"This international edition preserves the cutting-edge approach and pedagogy of the original, BUT MAY ALSO FEATURE ALTERATIONS, CUSTOMIZATION AND ADAPTATIONS FROM THE UNITED STATES VERSION" (Caps MH).

This is somewhat concerning, as there is no indication within the book what has been changed, altered or customised!

[snip]

Also some readers have reported on the reviews below, that some of the algorithms are wrong. Again I don't know the validity of these statements.

[snip]

(Source: Amazon review by ‘MH’)

I didn’t want to waste time and money reading a book that had the wrong algorithms! (Possibly even worse, the international edition doesn’t have a dragon on the cover.) I could buy the international edition fairly cheaply if I wanted - Abe Books currently have it for £11.83 - but I persisted in trying to track down an actual copy of the proper second edition.

And I found it!

Book Listing

A hardcover of the second edition in ‘Used - Good’ condition. I ordered it from Princes Bookshop, a reseller with a London address, and anticipated the book turning up.

Then, a few days later, I received a FedEx package containing a new, shrinkwrapped copy of the international edition with a sender’s address in India. This confused me greatly. Was it one of the cancelled orders? One of them did have a despatch notice, even though it was refunded.

No, it turns out this was sent by Princes Bookshop. It was neither hardcover, nor used.

It looks very like they’ve put up a listing for the hardcover second edition and then just gone and ordered a new copy of the Indian international edition and had it shipped directly to me. And did it aiming to pocket the difference between the £11.83 I could have got the international edition for and the £41.75 I actually paid for the second edition. That seems dodgy to me.

I queried this with Princes Bookshop, naturally. Among other things, they said:

We have shipped the same book which you have ordered and the detailed description of the book is available at the web site in our condition note. You can please find the same in your order details page and please note the contents of the book is exactly same as regular edition.

And later:

I am sorry to hear that you’ve received the wrong edition. All our items are listed by their ISBN numbers which does not identify any changes to edition, Amazon list our items and provide the photos of these titles.

I’m not convinced. I can understand some ISBN confusion (although I’d expect a bookseller to be an expert in that area), but listing a used hardcover and shipping a brand new softcover? Hmm.

They’ve offered me a 30% discount if I keep the book. Even at a 30% discount that would be nearly 3 times what I could have bought the international edition for.

I'm trying to return the book for a full refund plus whatever it costs to ship the book back to them. The whole episode leaves a bad taste in my mouth.

And I still haven’t got a copy of the dragon book, plus now I can’t trust resellers who claim they have a copy in stock.

Who’d’ve thought it would be this difficult to buy a book?

Tags: Clueless Idiocy
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I don’t think much of Philips Hue. I bought them thinking I’d like them, but they had a few problems that I ranted about:

    • If you turned them off at the power, when you turned them on again they came on at full brightness.

    • To use the app on your phone, you had to give up a lot of privacy. For instance, you had to give the app permission to take photos any time it wanted as well as let it know your exact location at all times. And while Android says apps should ask for permission only before taking the action, and should handle being denied permission gracefully, the Hue app just asked every time it started, and it quit if it was denied any permissions.

Now, lest you think I’m a grumpy old curmudgeon (OK, I am) who hates everything, Ikea’s TRÅDFRI are a joy in comparison. Really, unlike Hue there’s not much I wish I knew before buying them.

The TRÅDFRI Gateway Kit costs £69 which is comparable enough to what I paid for the Hue kit (and it comes with a dinky wee remote control that would cost extra with Hue). But the Ikea stuff is better, and simpler.

For a start, the bulbs remember their settings when they’re powered off. This is a big deal - Philips obviously want you to spend a fortune on replacing all your existing switches, but the Ikea system just works with what you've already got.

The app does ask for camera permission so it can scan the QR code on the back of the hub. But you can disable the permission immediately afterwards and the app doesn’t complain, or you can just deny permission to the camera and enter the code by hand. I’ve tried both on different devices, and neither has complained about not having access to the camera after setup. Nor has it ever asked for location access on either device.

I can see why someone said TRÅDFRI was ‘IoT done right’. They've got a lot of things right - including a lot of the security stuff. Unlike Hue, it’s just not designed to be accessible from the internet. If you want to use the app, you have to be on the same local network. Simple and effective. You can set up schedules for the lights to come on when you’re away, but you won’t be able to control the lights remotely.

I like that approach. I can control things remotely if I really want using my Raspberry Pi. There’s no API documentation as far as I know, but the wonderful geeks of the internet had discovered it uses standard protocols, and then gone on to figure out the proper parameters, and setting up a couple of bash scripts to turn my lights on or off was trivial.

Overall I’m pretty impressed with the TRÅDFRI system, even if I'm still not sure how to pronounce it.

Tags: Weird Interweb Stuff
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‘Fun With Cultural Touchstones’

Score: 5/5

Ernest Cline
£6.49

I thoroughly enjoyed this book.

OK, I guess it’s a Young Adult novel, and some of the story is quite simplistic because of this. There’s also the occasional deus ex machina where unmentioned features suddenly save the day. And I think somehow a general was promoted to an admiral, which confuses me greatly but if it’s a made-up force I suppose you can get away with that.

All of which misses the point. The whole book is an homage to the culture I grew up with, from Iron Eagle to Galaxians. To playing loud music when you game because the rhythm helps you. To identifying with the lead character in The Last Starfighter and Flight of the Navigator even though you knew it was cheesy. To losing hours (and sleep) because you couldn’t stop playing a game.

Yeah, this brought back a lot of fun memories. Totally worth it just for that.

And then I found out that someone had put together a Spotify playlist of the tracks in the 80s ‘Rock The Arcade’ mix tape in the book! Awesome stuff for rocking out when I’m next in-game. Or something.

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Why do leading sites require a phone number for 2-Factor Authentication (2FA)?

There’s plenty of people telling me I need to turn on 2FA for important sites, but I’ve given up.

All I want:

  • Security
  • Privacy

What I don’t want:

  • To be woken at 2am by sales calls.
  • To receive annoying text messages.

Seriously. I don’t like phone calls at the best of times, and calls from companies are right at the bottom of my list. Sales calls are at the bottom of that list, the bottom of the bottom of the list.

And one thing I learned from spam - the simplest step to avoid getting spam from a company is not to give that company your email address. It seems perfectly sensible to me that to avoid getting phone calls from a company, don’t give them your phone number.

But you can’t turn on 2FA on sites like Google Mail or Twitter without giving them your phone number.

I find this annoying.

It’s not a technical requirement. Yes, they have a way to do a 2FA by texting your phone number, but that’s not the only way to do 2FA. Google have put a lot of effort into 2FA, have created their own ‘Authenticator’ app, and even support open-source apps using these standard 2FA protocols. But you can’t use any of these standard protocols without first giving up your phone number.

These standard protocols (RFCs 4226 and 6238) don’t require your phone number - they use some fancy encryption to verify things. So there’s no reason a secure 2FA implementation needs to ask for a phone number. It can work perfectly well without it. The NIST has even deprecated the use of SMS in 2FA!

I’ve been told ‘But Google say they’ll only ever use the number for 2FA’ as if, somehow, that was immutable. Google can (and probably do) change their Terms and Conditions without me noticing. Changing the use of the phone number from 2FA-only to 2am-sales-call-o-rama doesn't seem beyond the bounds of possibility for a company that used to have the mantra ‘Don’t Be Evil’ but then... changed.

And Google is one of the better companies out there! If I don't want to give Google my number for 2FA I certainly don’t want to give it to any of the worse companies.

So I’m wondering about ways around this. There are mailinator-like services for SMS messages, but I don’t think that would increase my security... I could get a free SIM and use it to set up 2FA, but that would turn in to an ongoing cost because 2FA is an ongoing problem and I’ll likely need to enable 2FA in future on sites that don't even exist yet. I’m reluctant to have an extra mobile phone and SIM and overhead and cost just because companies want my phone number.

Why do they all want my phone number so much anyway?

Bah to the lot of ‘em.

Tags: Clueless Idiocy
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‘Just Keeps Getting Better’

Score: 5/5

Ben Aaronovitch
£5.43

I’m really enjoying this series. Wish the new books would come along faster!

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‘Nicely Tense Psychological Thriller’

Score: 5/5

Belinda Bauer
£6.19

I bought this from No Alibis (We have a specialist crime bookstore in Northern Ireland! I’ve never been able to focus on the tag line ‘Northern Ireland's only specialist crime bookstore’ when I’m so glad we actually have a specialist crime bookstore!)

(I feel guilty that I don't go there enough.)

Anyway, we were there between a couple of NI Science Festival events and couldn’t resist a few books. This one I’d never heard of, so it was a bit of an impulse purchase. When I was paying at the till, DT (the shop owner) reassured me it was a really good book, even before I’d said it was an impulse purchase.

And he was right!

It’s not a whodunnit, it’s not a police procedural, it’s not a detective story, but it is a very tense thriller. To say any more could spoil things so all I’ll say is if you get this book you’re in for a treat.

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‘Meh. It Was Alright’

Score: 3/5

E. M. Foner
£6.95

Coming after so many great books this left me more disappointed than I probably should have been with this book. It was OK. It doesn't really have a plausible, richly imagined environment, the aliens aren’t very detailed and the characters are fairly thin. (I was going to say that the aliens weren’t very realistic but that opens up a whole can of worms given that we don’t know if any exist. Maybe ‘plausible’ is a better word?)

But what bothered me was the cover. Who is in the red dress? The author is at pains to point out the main character only has one dress, a black cocktail dress she wears with pumps. This crops up repeatedly. So who is in the red dress? Is it her? If it is it’s never mentioned in the book. Is it someone else? Who? They’re never mentioned either. Is it just lazy art, because a black dress there would be too dull for the cover?

Now that I’ve got that out of my system, I can see that the covers of all the books are the same apart from the dress colour. And none of them are black. So I guess I’m no wiser about the point of the cover or who it’s supposed to be.

I probably won’t bother with more of this series. It was OK, and certainly readable enough, but I have plenty of others in my to-read pile.

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