‘Just Didn’t Get It’

Score: 3/5

I really like XKCD. Really. I like the way it doesn’t go for a broad appeal - sometimes going for jokes that only a few geeks will get. It’s a lot of fun.

I didn’t really enjoy this though. It’s from the same author, it’s clever, it’s funny in places, but it just didn’t work for me.

The gag is that the book is written entirely using only the most common 1000 words in the English language. You can get across quite complex thoughts if you stick to simple words, goes the thinking. Well, maybe. I spent too long trying to translate from the simplified description to the actual term for it to be fun for me.

Tags: 4 Word Book Reviews
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‘Everything About 1900s Cons’

Score: 5/5

David Maurer

Books like this could easily be dull, but this book was thoroughly enjoyable. It’s not filled with characters and anecdotes, but there are enough dotted around the place. The central theme though is the mechanics of the 3 ‘big cons’, details of how they’re done, and (most surprisingly to me) the history of their development.

I don’t know why it was such a surprise to me. I didn’t think these cons arrived fully-formed. I guess I just didn’t give it much thought at all. This book goes into some detail about the history of the big cons, how they were an innovative development of the ‘big store’ cons - itself a big leap in con development.

The 3 ‘big cons’ of the 1900s-1930s were The Wire, The Rag and The Pay-Off. I don’t want to post any spoilers here, but when you read this book you’ll come across basically the entire plot of ‘The Sting’. It surprised me how close a fit it was. So close I’d imagine the producers of the film would have sued, were it not for the fact the book was first published in 1940, a good 30 years before the film was made.

There are some nice characterisations scattered about the place. Here’s one:

Ignorant and repulsive-looking, freckled to the point of blotchiness, with the nasty shade of blue eyes which often accompanies a certain cast of red hair, awkward and slew-footed, Red Lager is certainly the acme of unattractiveness among con men. He is everything and does everything which, theoretically, a good con man shouldn’t. He has never heard of Dale Carnegie and is unaware of the barest rudiments of the science of ‘influencing’ people; yet he has made a fortune on the pay-off. And he has a son, the exact replica of his father down to the duck-like walk, who, despite his addiction to drugs - one vice the old man shunned - is today a successful confidence man.

It really paints a picture, doesn’t it?

The author does seem to have more than a little sympathy for the con artists he talks about. The police fare less well. Not because they lock up his pals, but just for the sheer volume of corruption there appears to have been in that era. Each big con mob had a ‘fixer’ whose job was to pay all the appropriate police and judges to make sure the cons could go ahead with impunity. Places where it was known it was safe to work were called ‘right’ places, and cops who could be bought were ‘right cops’. ‘Wrong cops’ were the upright police who couldn’t be bought. That feels like such an alien viewpoint!

Here’s another anecdote that made me chuckle:

Eddie Mines, according to underworld rumor, once got a mark for the huge duke [a card-based short con] who backfired on him. He and his partner, Johnny on the Spot, were working the trains when they rope a ‘smart’ mark. The play started and the mark appeared to be eating it up. When they put the ‘chill’ [the final bit where the mark loses] in it was loaded with four jacks for one member of the con mob and four nines for the mark. The mark tossed in his money like hay. When they laid down their hands, the mark showed four aces. Eddie is reputed to have let out a yell that could be heard all over the train: ‘God damn it!' he roared. ‘That’s not the hand I gave you!'

Even though there’s a lot of talk of the development of these big cons, I’m not sure on how they’ve really developed since the book was written. I don’t hear much about big cons these days apart from in TV series like Hustler. Maybe they are all still going on and people are reluctant to talk about them.

Much more common these days are modern versions of the short cons. There are plenty of these about, all taking full advantage of the latest technologies. The web is full of ‘em! Tourist spots often have plenty of cons who make a play of ‘finding’ a ring ‘someone must have lost’ right in front of you. And there are boiler room scams and pump-and-dump share cons, but nothing really of the scope of these big cons. I reckon that’s a good thing. I suspect all the con artists have moved into more lucrative work, like merchant banking and HFT. I reckon that's a bad thing.

And how do you protect yourself from them? There’s not a lot of advice to be had there. The best is probably ‘You can’t con an honest man’ since so many of the cons depend on the greed of the mark, seeking something for nothing. But even that’s not absolute - there’s at least one short con described in the book that can indeed con an honest man. (Cons in this era were very male dominated - women to get significant mentions throughout the book, but usually as exceptions or addenda. There are other areas and terms we’d find offensive these days too, so be warned.)

Tags: 4 Word Book Reviews
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‘Compelling And Well Paced’

Score: 4/5

David Baldacci

Apparently I’m a problem when it comes to birthday presents. (Old joke: ‘What do you get the man who has everything?’ ‘Penicillin’.)

Lately I’ve asked folks who felt the need to give me something to get me a book that they enjoyed. Not one they think I’ll enjoy, but one they themselves enjoyed. I figure that should keep me a little outside of my bubble, and hey - books are great.

That’s how I got this book.

I probably wouldn’t have bought it. I’m not sure why, but it’s probably seeing this author’s name on shelves next to Dan Brown so often that has put me off.

Now that I’ve read it, I can see the attraction of these books. They’re well paced, action-filled and have a bunch of puzzles throughout. The puzzles seem formulaic though - groundwork is laid by the author, something happens leading to a conclusion, the protagonist says the opposite of what you’re led to believe, the protagonist turns out to be right. I'm still at the stage where it’s a charming formula, rather than a tired one, but I’ve only read one book in this series.

The characters are fuller than I’d expected. There’s no rich, deep analysis of personalities going on but at least they’re more rounded than the paper-thin characters that often appear in action thrillers.

Will I read another one? Maybe. I’ve been given one already, and I suspect I may be given more in future.

Tags: 4 Word Book Reviews
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‘We’re Heading This Way’

Score: 4/5

Aldous Huxley

I have finally got around to this. The book has been sitting in my to-read pile for years, my occasional scanning of the first few pages putting me off, having me pick up something more readable instead.

My first impression: why on earth would you give away the ending in the Introduction? This edition has an introduction written by, erm, someone or other in the 1990s. (I’d check but I’m still annoyed at the whole thing.) And in that introduction, he gives away the ending.

It’s effectively an introduction to the book that depends on you having already read the book before reading the introduction.

This makes no sense to me.

But, the book itself: the characters aren’t great - they’re a bit thin, not very fleshed out. Especially the women. For a book written in the 1930s that’s probably not surprising. The plot isn’t that great either, depending as it does on implausible coincidence.

But what’s important, I suppose, is the setting. What does this view of the future say about us then, and about us now? Here’s where it hits its mark. I’m not going to explain the themes and setting here - if you want to find out what what Corey Doctorow meant by ‘Huxleyed Into The Full Orwell’, read it yourself!

Tags: 4 Word Book Reviews
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‘It Makes You Think’

Score: 5/5

Yuval Noah Harari

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.

Tags: 4 Word Book Reviews
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‘Compares Poorly With Renko’

Score: 4/5

Tom Rob Smith

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.

Tags: 4 Word Book Reviews
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‘It’s Not For Me’

Score: 3/5

Marguerite Reed

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.

Tags: 4 Word Book Reviews
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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.


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!


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.


(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

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.

Tags: 4 Word Book Reviews
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