books, authors and writing

Currently reading (and enjoying) Iain M. Banks’ latest novel, Surface Detail. It’s a monster of a book, and if initial impressions hold true, Mr Banks is back on form. He has that enviable skill of turning out phrases so delicious that you have to pause and savour them, rolling them round in your mind to appreciate them fully.

A case in point is the opening line of The Crow Road, which is this:

It was the day my grandmother exploded.

Seriously, that’s got to be one of the best opening lines in a novel, ever. Who could not want to read on after that?

China Mieville and Jon Courtenay Grimwood are others who can do that to me. Though latterly Mr Grimwood has felt a little off his earlier form – his Arabesk Sequence is utterly superb and has a whole host of bits which I find myself re-reading and re-reading trying to work out exactly how he’s managed to distill a particular point down in such a way. There’s a bit in Pashazade (iirc) where the protagonist gets mugged (well, someone *tries* to mug him, at least), and it’s just beautifully written.

Then of course, there’s Michael Marshall Smith. One of my favourite authors – his Only Forward ranks way up on my Top Ten Books You Really Ought To Read list, followed closely by (or preceded by) the equally impressive Spares. Not quite so keen on his Michael Marshall books – they’re more ‘mainstream’ thrillers (for a given value of mainstream – still dark, gritty and well written, but not as groundbreaking or brilliant as his earlier, more sci-fi(ish) output).

His short stories are quite another thing, and utterly fabulous. ‘More Tomorrow…’ (of the short story collection of the same name) is utterly terrifying and has one of the most unpleasantly perfect last lines of a story, ever. Makes me shudder just thinking about it. The Man Who Drew Cats is superb, as is When God Lived in Kentish Town. Actually, they’re all great. If you can lay your hands on a copy of the rarer (only a thousand copies, signed and numbered), more complete collection of his short stories, ‘More Tomorrow and Other Stories’, I’d highly recommend it.


stay with it past the first minute. This guy is *really* good.

I once heard a theory about juggling. Juggling three balls, on a scale of 1 to ten, ranks about a three or a four.

Juggling four balls, up to about 8 out of ten.

Juggling *five* balls, about 80.

That kind of crystal ball manipulation? We’re into thousands.

I can teach you to juggle three balls in an hour or two[1]. A couple of hours of decent practice more, and you’ll be at the point where you can impress non-jugglers with your newly-found skills, and be thinking about doing some tricks.

Give it a week, and you’ll get four balls – after all, it’s just two balls in one hand, in each hand. Bit of practice on your weaker hand, and you’ll get there.

Juggling five is an order of magnitude more difficult – throws are necessarily higher, and have to be far more precise as you just don’t have the time to constantly readjust the pattern. And picking up five is hard on the back. 🙂

Crystal ball manipulation? It’ll take you weeks to get even remotely smooth with a simple ball-over-the-hand. And that’s with your good hand. Doing the spinny four-ball pyramid? Hard.

Doing what the guy in the video does? Years of practice.

Beautiful to watch though. One day I hope to be half as good as that.

Now, where did I put my crystal ball?

day 15 20SEP2009

[1]No, really I can. You might be shaky on it, but it’s perfectly possible, assuming you can throw and catch one ball from one hand to the other.

My Review of Hackers

Originally submitted at O’Reilly

Steven Levy’s classic book about the original hackers of the computer revolution is now available in a special 25th anniversary edition, with updated material from noteworthy hackers such as Bill Gates, Mark Zukerberg, Richard Stallman, and Steve Wozniak. Hackers traces the exploits o…


By dakegra from wakefield, UK on 8/26/2010
5out of 5

Pros: Easy to understand, Well-written, Accurate

Best Uses: Everyone

Describe Yourself: Developer

Hackers is a fascinating history of the computer industry from the late 50’s through to the late 80s, covering the birth of the personal computer, the internet and the gaming industry.This is the 25th Anniversary Edition though, so has been updated with a ‘ten years later’ appendix covering the likes of Mark Zuckerberg, and with updates from Gates, Stallman and Woz looking back at what has changed over the last quarter-century.

It’s a great read, and if I had one criticism it’s the jump between the original ending of the book to the ‘ten years later’ piece, when the world wide web exploded into everyday use. That said, I lost myself for several hours in the history – it’s told in an amiable right-in-the-middle-of-things style which I found enormously enjoyable and interesting.


My Review of Getting Started with Processing

Originally submitted at O’Reilly

Learn computer programming the easy way with Processing, a simple language that lets you use code to create drawings, animation, and interactive graphics. Programming courses usually start with theory, but this book lets you jump right into creative and fun projects. It's ideal for anyone wh…

useful introduction to Processing

By dakegra from Wakefield, UK on 7/16/2010


5out of 5

Pros: Helpful examples, Concise, Easy to understand, Accurate, Well-written

Best Uses: Intermediate, Student, Novice

Describe Yourself: Developer

This is a short but useful intro to Processing – it starts with the very basics and through a great set of useful and well-illustrated examples takes the user up to a reasonable level of understanding.

It’s not an in-depth book, but as the title suggests, is a perfect ‘getting started’ companion to a first foray into Processsing. It also lightly covers the basics of programming – for loops, functions and so on, so could be a useful primer for someone new to programming.

I really enjoyed working through the book and trying out the examples – it’s left me with a keen interest to try out more things with Processing and apply it to my own projects.

Great fun. Perhaps not ideal for experienced coders, but ideal for beginners and those wanting the basics of Processing explained neatly and well.


movie review: Predators

Saw Predators last night.

To set the scene – hopes for this were high. This was *the* sequel. Robert Rodruigez! Predators, plural!
That ultra-cool trailer moment where Adrien Brody stops and his head and torso is covered in the triple-laser Predator sights. Laurence Fishburne! Danny Triejo!


It started well – we find our hero (Adrien Brody) unconscious in free fall, waking to frantically try and open his parachute. Pretty tense. He meets up with a motley crew of assorted bad-ass misfits.

The action ticks along nicely. The dialogue is fairly predictable – you could literally tell pretty much what Brody was going to say a line or two before he was going to say it. Still, that can be fun.

The action sequences are also fun, and well done. The only issue I have is that we’ve seen it all before, and better in some cases.

Brody plays a kind of sub- Vin Diesel Riddick from Pitch Black – anonymous hard case who is tougher than anyone else by a mile, quick with the wisecracks. Riddick was more interesting though, and you ended up rooting for him in the end, despite him being a merciless killer.

Same with the other characters – you could essentially line them up and say who’s going to make it to the end, who’s going to get killed off, and more or less in what order. Even the odd-man out was predictably not who he seemed, though I did sort of expect him to be working for the Predators in the end.

The bit which got me though was how few Predators were actually in the movie. That trailer? The one with the dozen or so gunsights?

Not in the movie.

That whole scene, that whole ‘oh. my. god… how on earth is he going to get out of *that*??’

Not there.

I wanted it to be what Aliens was to the original Alien – bigger, badder, more intense. What we got though was just another Predator movie, with a couple more Predators and a different motley group of characters to get killed off.

I wanted to see more of the Predators, more of the hunt, more of the why. I know *what* they do, I’ve seen it before. It’s cool, with the thermal imaging stuff, and the laser sights, and the weapons and stuff, but I wanted… more.

Had this been the first Predator movie, it would have been perfectly fine. As it was, it was just another version of it, with no twists or turns or real surprises. It was better than the AvP movies, but Arnie did it better.

That said, I liked the yakuza guy and his swordfight. I liked Laurence Fishburne. Danny Treijo is always watchable. Adrien Brody looked in phenomenal shape.

Oh, and for those who’ve got this far, a question. Why, after being told halfway through the film that Arnie saved himself by covering himself in mud, did Royce (Brody) wait until the very end of the film to actually do it? Then completely ignore the fact that he was covered in mud (as it clearly didn’t work on the thermal imaging camera) and go for the fire instead, which clearly was his plan all along?

So, in summary, a perfectly ok action flick. Decent acting, big explosions, all your standard Predator fare. I didn’t resent paying my seven quid for a ticket, and was quite happy that I’d seen it on the big screen.

It just wasn’t what it so easily could have been. It’s been set up for a sequel. Now I want my Predators, plural. And *lots* of them, this time.

7/10. Try harder next time.

Week 3 update

Week 3, and the allotment is coming along nicely – the damson trees are full of fruit, and the apples are ripening nicely. We’ve got tomato plants in and have sown peas at one end of the plot.

We’ve shifted 2 huge builders’ bags of plants we’ve dug up, and another one is full ready for a trip to the tip. Maybe we could have composted some of it, but there were nettles and docks in amongst it.

The middle third is now mostly covered in weed-resistant matting, tarps and old groundsheets.

I’ve been clearing the other end too – it seems like a shame to ditch the potatoes, but after a bad few, it’s not worth the hassle. Clear ’em out, get some new stuff in instead.

I’ve started clearing a pathway between our half-plot and our neighbour’s half – we’re supposed to leave 9″ either side of the dividing line, so as the neighbour has been away and hasn’t seen their plot yet, I’ve been clearing either side of the line to make the path. We’ve got some board for our edge, and some old carpet to put down for the path.

Last night our neighbour Mark and I were having a chat and he gave me a seed tray full of leek seedlings as he’s got too many. Should get them in tonight, hopefully! Hooray for generous allotment neighbours!

Bites: 5 – 3 on legs from last 2 weeks (now wearing long trousers for digging) and two on my right arm from last night. Hoping those two don’t go the way of the other three, which itched like crazy, hurt, and left painful bruises.

Also my copy of One Man and His Dig: Adventures of an Allotment Novice finally arrived from Amazon last night. Looks jolly amusing, but too tired to actually read it!

Photos later…