Category: 2020

Mini review: “Ready Player One” by Ernest Cline (audiobook edition)

This has instantly become one of my favourite books – I loved every minute of this twenty-first century sci-fi celebration of 1980’s book, film and music culture.

It’s 2044 and the real world has gone to hell, so most people spend their time in a virtual reality universe called the OASIS. When the original founder / coder of the OASIS dies he leaves behind a challenge – find an easter-egg he has programmed into the virtual world by completing a number of (increasingly nerdy) tasks and win the founder’s fortune and control of the OASIS itself.

Wil Wheaton does an excellent, basically flawless narration and I would recommend the audiobook version.

There are only a couple of reservations – some people may find the geekiness overload just too much to bear and at 15 hours it is quite a time investment.

But not me – I really liked it and if it sounds like your thing, I can’t recommend it highly enough. Now to watch the movie to see how much they rip out the guts of the story…

Mini review: The “Aubrey–Maturin” novels: Books 1 to 3 by Patrick O’Brian (abridged audiobook editions)

On holiday over the summer, my family stayed in a cottage which had copies of nearly all of the “Aubrey-Maturin” books by Patrick O’Brian and I took the opportunity to read the back covers to find out the story of each (and return them neatly in publication order).

Several months ago I had started listening to the unabridged audiobook of “Master and Commander” but stopped about half way through – which is very rare for me. I just could not get used to the writing style but finding all the books re-ignited my interest.

I knew that I would struggle to find time to read the books, so when I found these abridged versions on the Libby app (like Audible, but free if you have a library card) I thought I’d give them a try.

I would not normally consider abridged versions of books (especially when you consider that each story has been cut down from between 12 – 16 hours to just 3 – 4 hours) but I would like to explore more of the series and I was able to get through the three of these stories in the time it would take me to read a short book.

Master and Commander (Book 1)

The “Aubrey-Maturin” novels are set in the early 1800s and are adventure stories based around the friendship between the Navy captain Jack Aubry and his ship’s surgeon Stephen Maturin.

The author does an excellent job of portraying the time period and he has obviously done his research (the stories are often based around real events). These main characters are intriguing, in particular because they are far from perfect.

The language and the level of technical detail that appears in the first half of this book can make it a slog to get through. Don’t let that put you off as the author proves that he is good at the action scenes too.

This book is very good in itself but perhaps more importantly (once you have read some of the other stories in the series) it is clear that this is just the beginning of a long adventure.

Post Captain (Book 2)

At the start of this book Jack and Stephen are back on dry land, enjoying life. Things do not go in Jack’s favour for very long, however, with an unexpected trip to Spain turning into an altogether more serious affair. In a bid to escape his situation ashore Jack accepts a number of increasingly dangerous jobs to keep at sea.

This is a much more personal story as we find out about the women who play a part in their lives. Jack and Stephen’s friendship comes under immense strain. It also becomes clear that Stephen is not just a sidekick to the main character Aubry – he has more depth, more intelligence and a more significant role than is apparent at first.

This is an altogether faster-paced story and all the better for it. It also has a nice vein of dry humour which is welcome. I would be tempted to read the full version of this book but as an abridged version this rockets along whilst flowing nicely.

H.M.S. Surprise (Book 3)

Jack and Stephen are taking an ambassador to Malaysia in what is the best of the books so far – the depiction of the storms they encounter and the battles stand out.

Writing style

The writing style is quite daunting at first but after a while I found myself getting used to the pacing of the language and overcame the fact that I did not necessarily understand every single word uttered by the characters. Perhaps it is easier to listen to than to read? By the time you get into the second book I don’t think this is an issue – you are either used to it or absorbed in the storytelling.

Narration

What elevates these audiobooks is the narrator – the actor Robert Hardy takes the material and rings out every last drop of drama and excitement out of it. This is a performance and a half… the books come alive and battles at sea become vivid and real. It is heart-pounding stuff as opponents use all their skill and cunning to come out as victors.

Overall

I am going to listen to more of these abridged versions of the audiobooks – they gave me just enough detail to tell the story and could be finished in a few sessions. For a series with so many books, this is the best way I am going to experience these stories. I would rather do this than miss out.

• The Guardian: Naval gazing

Mini review: “Invisible Women” by Caroline Criado Perez

Now this exists, there is no excuse – everyone should read this book. As a white male, I never had to consider the many, many points raised. As a father to daughters, they should not to have to grow up and live in a world that is hostile to their gender – and neither should any woman. Women in other parts of the world suffer even more.

One particularly poignant issue raised is how women are left in a worse position than men after a pandemic – in this book from 2019 the author was talking about SARS and Ebola. The effects of Covid-19 are going to dwarf the effects of those outbreaks. Everybody will be impacted but – although it won’t necessarily be obvious or even studied in depth (it should be) – I suspect women will be impacted disproportionately more than men to a great degree, especially in the long term.

It doesn’t have to be this way.

Mini review: “Foundation” by Isaac Asimov (audiobook version)

For a science fiction novel that is nearly 70 years old, this has aged remarkably well.

It got a bit too political towards the end for my taste and covering such large time spans means that you are introduced several times over to an entirely new cast of characters, which can be a bit disconcerting.

Still – recommended.

Mini review: “Coders: Who They Are, What They Think and How They Are Changing Our World” by Clive Thompson (audiobook edition)

This book is a must read if you are considering becoming a coder – and also if you work with them. The first half or so of the book goes into detail about how most people get into writing software (formal education or being self taught), the nature of the job (what they do all day), possible career paths and the personality characteristics found in many coders – both good and bad. It looks at the different types of people coming into the industry, the misleading myths that have built up, the particular challenges for women and the realistic outlook if you are looking for a mid-career job change – coming in from a different industry. Very interesting, and not something that I recall seeing dealt with in such detail elsewhere.

The remainder of the book examines the tech scene in more general terms – a look at the early days of computing and how people got into computers in previous decades, the decline in the proportion of women in the profession over time, the rise of AI and machine learning, the social problems (little predicted at the beginning but now very much in evidence) that arise with becoming a massive scale platform and how the venture capital industry determines how companies have to behave.

There is a bit of repetition as things that are mentioned briefly in the first part are dealt with in more depth in the second, but the author does a good-enough job at bringing things back to how these things are relevant to coders. The final chapter on “blue collar” coders is particularly good, so the book finishes on a high. It should give people thinking about going into this field some things to consider, which can only be a good thing.

The narration of the audiobook is interesting – often the soul of these technology / business books is sucked out of them by a narrator who talks in some “default-American” tone, unremarkable and uninspiring. At first I thought that this was going to be yet another example, but the performance is more nuanced – it feels like it is the author reading their own text but it is more professional. He gets the tone just right.

Spare Cycles turns thirteen…

This lovingly crafted blog is celebrating its thirteenth birthday. A beer (or thirteen) is cooling in the fridge to toast the reaching of a milestone. Happy birthday!

• Spare Cycles: Spare Cycles turns twelve…

• Spare Cycles: Spare Cycles turns eleven…

• Spare Cycles: Spare Cycles turns ten…

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Mini review: “Leviathan Wakes” by James S. A. Corey (audiobook edition)

I read this after seeing the first couple of seasons of the TV series The Expanse.

It’s a really good book – a solid 4 out of 5 stars – and I would recommend it to any sci-fi fan. The narrator does a solid enough job of reading the story, although nothing revolutionary.

The trouble is that the TV series is good and follows the book closely – for once I don’t think that you necessarily get more from reading the book than watching the show, and in the time it would take you to read this book and it’s first sequel (Caliban’s War) you could watch pretty much all four seasons of the TV show.

I’d do that…

Mini review: “The Soul Of A New Machine” by Tracy Kidder

This wonderful slice of computing history comes from 1982 and tells the background story of the creation of a new computer by a team at the company Data General. They had a successful line of 16-bit computers but the business was being threatened by competitors who were already producing 32-bit machines.

I’d never heard of Data General but it turns out that at the end of the 1970s they were a big deal, although a lot more brash and rough around the edges than their competitors such as IBM.

There is always a concern with a book this old that the issues would no longer be relevant, the technology archaic. Neither is true. Processors have advanced in the meantime (and to some extent regressed – see below) but they still represent the core of a system. The issues the author raises are more than just technical – his focus is on the personalities of the team members, the challenges and the pressures they face.

In the last couple of years we have seen issues such as Spectre and Meltdown arising from flaws introduced in CPUs in the 1990’s, so processor design and microcode still impact modern computing. Also, check out the new Mac Pro from Apple – a computer that they had to design and build from scratch under severe time pressure to ensure that the company kept an important section of it’s user-base happy. I’m sure that the experience of the engineers on that project would echo what happened decades ago in the Data General offices.

The author does an excellent job of explaining the technical issues without going too deep (or finds a suitable metaphor to put his point across) and keeps the pace flowing nicely.

And to wrap it up, the bitter-sweet ending rings true – he managed to capture a special moment in time and did it brilliantly. You are fully engaged in the story and the people. This is an excellent book and I recommend it to everyone, especially if you work in IT.

• Wikipedia: Data General

• The Computer Museum History Center: Core 2.1 – The Data General Nova (direct link to PDF file)

• Wired: Souls, Lost and Found (2008)

• Spare Cycles: Article: “SPACEWAR” by Stewart Brand (Rolling Stone magazine, December 1972)

• Spare Cycles: Mini review: “Troublemakers: How a Generation of Silicon Valley Upstarts Invented The Future” by Leslie Berlin

• Spare Cycles: Article: “The Tinkerings of Robert Noyce” by Tom Wolfe

Film review: Knives Out

I missed this in the cinema and I’d wanted to see it ever since. It was so different from the director’s last film The Last Jedi and that intrigued me.

A vein of black humour and a strong cast having fun make this a good way to pass a few hours. I really enjoyed it.

Film review: John Wick 3 – Parabellum (Blu-ray version)

This is the best of the series so far, mainly due to the more varied ways in which Keanu Reeves dispatches his enemies. Halle Berry is good at it too. Plot is largely irrelevant. Enjoy.

• Spare Cycles: Film review: John Wick (Chapters 1 and 2) – Blu-ray version

• Wikipedia: John Wick: Chapter 3 – Parabellum