Riding the Testrocket
I say it a lot, but programming is about ideas. More specifically, it's about not running out of ideas.
Along these lines, I read the results of an interesting study recently. It was a study about how we think and solve problems. When I was in school, the belief was that we needed to cram our brain full of facts. We were pushed to memorize, memorize, memorize.
The more modern view of learning is that facts don't matter as much. Nowadays we just try to teach children how to think. The assumption is that they can find the facts they need, because information is so universally available, and their thinking skills will allow them to work their way to other bits of knowledge.
The study looked at people taught using both of these techniques and found some surprising results: us memorizers can often out think the thinkers. A leading theory about why that's the case is that the memorizers have more of a foundation to build their ideas off of. Thinkers may be starting closer to scratch each time. If so, they have further to go to get to the needed solution. Memorizers, on the other hand, may already have a lot of knowledge that puts them closer to the solution before they even need to start thinking.
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.