Capsule Reviews

ENIAC: The Triumphs and Tragedies of the World's First Computer Scott McCartney

I'm amazed at the continuity of geek culture: how similar the early days of EDVAC and UNIVAC were to the the dot com culture of hyperkinetic geeks working around the clock and fluffing business plans right and left.

I loved the description of Eckert perched precariously on a chair back interviewing some fellow for seven hours, inspired by the candidate's past projects to riff on about his own ideas. Eckert especially liked people with technical hobbies, since he supposed they would be most amenable to working on technical projects for his company around the clock.

Read: October 27, 2003.

C++ Templates: The Complete Guide David Vandevoorde, Nicolai M. Josuttis

Encyclopaedic but readable. Part I is a tutorial overview of templates. The remainder of the book covers advanced usage, idioms and cutting edge techniques, and serves as a detailed reference as well. I bought the book because I stalled out on page 12 of Andrei Alexandrescu's Modern C++ Design for inadequate understanding of templates.

I like the book. So I get to complain a little: I'm in the middle of Part I now. The level is uneven: a properly (but painfully) elementary first chapter is followed by a fairly heavy section on template function overloading which invites you to digest the gory details in an appendix. Maybe when I return to the book as a reference guide I'll be glad of that. Code examples get repeated verbatim, sometimes on the same page, to illustrate an additional point. Pads the book out a bit, and makes me scratch my head looking for differences that aren't there. On the other hand, keeps me from having to flip back a page.

Physically, the books is attractive, with a clear and readable font and layout. Solidly in the Stroustrupesque "academic" tradition: straight text, no silly icons or sidebars.

Reading now.

Reviewed: first impressions: 21 July 2003.

Stanislaw Lem's Solaris

Sadder than I remember. The first time I read it, I was impressed by the satire of the Scientific Establishment. This time I was more attuned to Kelvin's inner journey, his changing understanding of his feelings of guilt and love for Harey (Rheya) and her Solarian incarnation, and the sacrifices each are willing to make for the other that suggest to me that they really did come to love each other in the end, beyond Harey's programmed love and Kelvin's sense of guilt. I think that Kelvin's decision to stay on the planet in hopes of establishing contact with what might be a planetary intelligence is just sublimated hope of Harey's further reincarnation. I think he would have done better to have let go.

Read: in college. Rereading in January 2003.

Reviewed: 7 January 2003.

Charles Erskine Scott Wood's Heavenly Discourses

God, Jesus, Samuel Clemens, Voltaire, Rousseau, Paine, Bob Ingersoll, Lao Tze, Gautama, and many others discuss the foolishness, bigotry, cruelty and stupidity of humanity in these satirical, erudite and deeply humanistic pieces written for Max Eastman's The Masses during World War I. Funny and still, sadly, relevant.

Read: first in my early teens. Rereading in Aug 2002.

Reviewed: 16 Aug 2002.

A.S. Byatt's The Djinn in the Nightingale's Eye: Five Fairy Stories

If you like storytelling, if you enjoy Italo Calvino or Borges or Neil Gaiman, you will love this little book of tales. Each is a perfect little postmodern fairy-tale, charming, frightening or enlightening. The tone is illustrated nicely by the Tale of the Eldest Princess, who, realizing she is in a story and not liking the role she is playing ("I do not want to be the princess who fails and must be rescued" and she cries), decides, after much reflection and with the brusque encouragement of a dangerous guide, to leave the road and abandon the story and create her own. Along the way she sees sometimes an old woman walking behind her, or ahead of her on the path. Much later she learns that there is always an old woman ahead of you or behind you... and I'm sure she will someday be the old woman to another young woman who chooses to make her own path.

Read: in progress. Should be savored in small doses.

Reviewed: 12 June 2002.

Julian Dibbell's My Tiny Life: Crime and Passion in a Virtual World

I loved the breathless, hip, intellectual pop-culture neo-electric-kool-aid acid test writing style. He captures the initial thrill of joining an on-line community, the strange blurring of on-line and real-life identity that those of us who live largely in our own minds are apt to experience, especially the first time out. His descriptions of the characters are vivid: excellent postage-stamp portraits that we would have had to compile for ourselves from hours of typed dialogue.

About two-thirds of the way through I lost interest in the descriptions of bickering and intense dislike among the participants in the mud. Had I been there I suppose I would have left the mud; as it is, I stopped reading the book. I'll finish it one of these days.


Read: last summer.

Reviewed: this summer.

Dan Cederholm's Web Standards Solutions: The Markup and Style Handbook

Each chapter demonstrates how to seprate structure and style for one element of web page design, including lists, anchors, tables and layout. Very clear.

Reading now.

Larry Niven's Ringworld

Classic. reread it because I wanted to finally read the rest of the series in honor of the appearance of the latest installment. But I misremembered the cat-tails, which are actually from A World out of Time

Read: September 2004

Azumanga Daioh

Wacky highschool Anime. Cute characters.

Watched: Vol. 1 September 2004

Gregory Maguire's Wicked

Interesting twist on an old favorite.

Terry Carr's The Dance of the Changer and the Three

A short story. I think this is the best approximation of a truly alien mindset that I've read. The middle third of Asimov's novel The Gods Themselves also embeds you deeply and sympathetically in an alien culture, but in the end you can understand Asimov's aliens. Carr's aliens remain alien, and the story is both unsettling and exciting.

Jonathan Carroll's White Apples and The Wooden Sea

Eschatological fiction. Interesting characters.

Nicholson Baker's A Box of Matches

He is superb at capturing the stream of memories and minutiae that run through all our minds in a way that makes us interested in the character and his preoccupations. I don't think the character (who, I think, is the author quite undisguised) is all that interesting a man in and of himself, and I think that is the point - looked at closely enough, with some empathy, anyone can be interesting. And Baker even manages to make a story arc out of a two month sequence of daily diary entries, with a conventional climax and denoument structure and some character growth. Unexpected and very pleasing!

Indra's Pearls

Mathematical and computer graphical exploration of some beautiful fractals deriving from Klein's work on the interactions between certain kinds of spiral motion. Lovely images, nice mathematics (geometry and complex numbers) and computer code.


A terrific space western from the creator of Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Kaylee is qute! Foolishly canceled, there is a movie in the works. Good theme song.

Haibane Renmei

Melancholy and lovely Anime, a story of redemption and coming of age from Yoshitoshi ABe (Lain, Niea). More info and a review.

Rudolph Peierl's Bird of Passage

A charming physicist's charming autobiography

Neil Gaiman's Neverwhere and American Gods

Great storyteller.

email: dhf at panix dot com
Revised 21 October 2004