Book Reviews

My views about what I read, often programming slanted.
  • 31


    Game Programming Patterns

    I meet a lot of programmers that tell me they got started because they wanted to build games. However, when I ask most of them which games they have built, the list rarely includes anything more than mostly unplayable toy projects.

    I can only guess at the reasons for this oddity, but I suspect it might be due to the fact that games are fairly complex. Even if you want to rebuild a fairly simple classic like Space Invaders or Snake you need to know at least a little about event loops, keyboard handling, animation, and collision detection. If your day job involves a different kind of programming, like Web application development, odds are good that you don't get a lot of practice with these concepts.

    That may not be your story, but it was definitely mine. This year I decided that it was finally time to learn how to build games. I used several sources to gain this knowledge and some helped more than others, but the biggest win by far was a book called Game Programming Patterns by Bob Nystrom.

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  • 10


    One Programmer's Library

    I have always enjoyed the posts where people list out all of the books they think are important, given some subject. They vary wildly. For example, some are very to-the-point while others are rich in detail (and Danielle makes one of those each year).

    I began to wonder what my list would look like. Below I've tried to make those decisions. I was surprised by just how hard it is to restrict myself to the bare essentials. A lot of things that I read influence me in some way.

    The Classics

    I'll start with the super obvious titles you've likely heard mentioned before.

    • Refactoring: Improving the Design of Existing Code is probably the classically great programming text that had the biggest effect on me. This book teaches you how to turn the code you have into the code you want. It doesn't get much more essential than that.
    • Smalltalk Best Practice Patterns is the book I learned a new language just to read. It's worth that. This is The Field Manual of Object-Oriented Tactics and it helps you know what to do line-by-line.
    • Patterns of Enterprise Application Architecture is the book you should read so you can see how much great knowledge we've had about building programs for over a decade. Odds are that this book can teach you multiple strategies for problems you face regularly.
    • The Pragmatic Programmer: From Journeyman to Master is one of those rare books that can make you a better person, in addition to a better programmer. Advice like "Fix Broken Windows" and "Make Stone Soup" have universal scope. This is a must read.
    • Programming Pearls (2nd Edition) is a book about algorithms and, eventually, all programmers need to learn some algorithms. The upside of this title is that it's fun from page one. That helps to keep you interested in what can be a dry topic.
    • Growing Object-Oriented Software, Guided by Tests is almost surely the single biggest influence on how I do Test-Driven Development. There are other schools of thought but pick one and dig deep enough into TDD until you're confident about when and how to use it. This is a tool everyone needs in their toolbox.

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  • 8


    Pragmatic Thinking & Learning

    I have a new standard by which all future reading material will measured. Any book that casually mentions lock picking and follows it up with a footnote reference to further reading that will improve your lock picking skills when restricted to an improvised toolset is an instant hit. Pragmatic Thinking & Learning does exactly that. While that description may be a bit of hyperbole (I had to look that word up Andy), the book really does deliver, both on the lock picking references and the great content.

    If I had to sum up Pragmatic Thinking & Learning in one sentence it would be: it's a book about how to start thinking about thinking, with a moderate computer programmer slant. If that sounds a bit general, well, it is. A construction worker or anyone else could learn new things that would help them in their jobs and just day to day lives from this book. I know I would love for my teenage foreign exchange student to read it, because she could learn a lot from it. I'm pretty sure this book does exist in many other forms targeted at different groups of people. The advantage of this one is that I get the jokes and metaphors. Hooray for geek humor!

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  • 11


    The Definitive Guide to SQLite

    I'm a huge fan of SQLite. Every time I do something with the little database it always manages to impress me in new ways. Here's a pop quiz for you:

    • Did you know SQLite is totally free? I mean really free. All the code is in the public domain, protected by affidavits, and you can literally do anything you like with it.
    • Did you know SQLite uses "manifest typing" which is similar to Ruby's dynamic typing? The database engine will really allow you to handle field types in whatever way is best for your needs. Of course, you can do type checking in triggers if you prefer to be more strict.
    • Everyone knows SQLite shoves an entire database in one file, but did you know that it can work with more than one of those files at once? Yes, SQLite can query across multiple databases.

    I could go on and on. Really, I could. SQLite is that cool.

    It's almost silly to use flat files these days. If you find yourself needing one, you can load one gem instead, stick a full database in the file, take advantage of transactions and locking (very multiprocessing friendly), gain a full query language for working with the data, and have a prebuilt human interface completely separate from your code (the command-line tool is great for debugging). It's hard to beat that.

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  • 8


    Programming Amazon Web Services

    I really wanted to love Programming Amazon Web Services and it does have some things going for it, but there are enough minuses to keep me from giving it full marks. Let me start by talking about what the book covers, then we will take a look at what it did well and not so well.

    This book provides full coverage of Amazon's suite of Web services. You'll find detailed chapters on Amazon's file storage service S3, their cloud computing service EC2, their messaging service SQS, their payment gateway FPS, and their document database service SimpleDB. The book begins by explaining Amazon's philosophies for these services, how they affect the suite as a whole, and why that should be important to you. For each service you will find detailed information about the design and intent of the service, how to interact with the API (including a full client implementation), and example applications making use of the service. The larger and more complicated services span multiple chapters to make sure all key aspects of using that service are covered.

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  • 1


    Design Patterns in Ruby

    I've been lucky enough to read a string of good Ruby books lately and the latest in that line is Design Patterns in Ruby. This book attempts to modernize the software design patterns by showing how these patterns can be applied in a language as dynamic as Ruby. Despite a couple of minor missteps along the way, the book definitely delivers on this goal.

    Design Patterns in Ruby begins with a couple of introductory chapters introducing both the concepts behind reusable software patterns and the Ruby programming language. After that, the main section of the book has 13 chapters that walk through 14 of the patterns first introduced in the famous "Gang of Four" book that began the design patterns movement. The author then introduces three new patterns he feels have grown out of day to day Ruby usage. Finally the book closes with a short conclusion and two appendices on installing Ruby and other sources of information.

    Most of that content is exactly what I wanted to find in this book, but you're going to have to tolerate a diversion about a pet peeve of mine that is strangely common in Ruby books. This is really, really important, so listen up: you can't teach Ruby in 30 pages. Period. I can hear all on the "But…" replies forming out there now… No buts. You can't. Trust me. Not even if the person is already an experienced programmer. It just can't be done. Authors and publishers need to come to terms with that and move on. Its just fine to say, "This is not a beginning Ruby book." We even prefer that, because we know when we are ready to read it and we don't have to skip that useless 30 page chapter when we do. Please, stop including introductory Ruby chapters in every book.

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  • 28


    Practical Ruby Projects

    Practical Ruby Projects is a pretty poorly named title, but, luckily, that doesn't stop it from being a very strong book. The book actually turns out to be an exploring-the-Ruby-programming-language-by-example book. These aren't your trivial beginners-only tasks though. There's enough meat in these pages for the intermediate crowd to really get into.

    Let me start by clarifying my earlier comment about the title. It's clear this book is named after the series it appears in, instead of the actual content it holds. There are lots of projects in the book and they are definitely written in Ruby, but Practical is not the word I would use to describe them. Fun, on the other hand, would be a great word. Beyond that, the code and concepts used in these projects is well worth studying. Just don't expect to find the typical (for Ruby) collection of Web programming tips inside. To me, that was a big plus. The title just misrepresents what's inside.

    The projects you will find in the book include: MIDI music generation, SVG graphic building, pocket change simulations, a turn-based strategy game, a Mac OS X GUI, a genetic algorithms framework, as well as both a parser and interpreter for the Lisp programming language. While these projects obviously tackle subsets of each problem space, they go deep enough to serve as a solid introduction in each area. The author is also good at focusing on the more interesting aspects of each challenge and throwing in a few twists to keep your interests high.

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  • 24


    From Bash to Z Shell

    I work on multiple Unix platforms all day long. I had never really taken the time to learn about the shells, but I had picked up the basics over time. I knew how to run commands, string them together with pipes, and redirect their output into files. So when I tell you that I started learning new things in the first chapter of From Bash to Z Shell, you will know the coverage is in depth. If you are a casual shell user, or even less experienced, this book has a lot to offer you.

    From Bash to Z Shell is organized into three parts. Part one is an introduction to shell basics. It focuses on typical interactions with a shell including all of the things I mentioned knowing before reading this book. There is surprisingly good depth even here though and I doubt that anyone short of a power user could make it through this section without picking up a new trick or two. I learned multiple things from each chapter in this section.

    In part two, each chapter takes a single aspect of the shells and really focuses in on just that. You will find chapters about the startup files each shell invokes as well as shell command histories. This is comprehensive coverage that really gets you to understand how things work as well as how to tune them to your personal tastes. You are even less likely to not pickup great tips in here.

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