Line by Line

February 2014 Reading List Update

posted February 28, 2014

updated December 3, 2017

Tags: reading list

Once upon a time, I put together a reading list and posted it to the Internet with the thought that I'd do some reading, and then use the blog to share my thoughts about what I read.

I think I got one more post out of that, and then I barely read anything else on that list. So now I want to give it another shot.

Here's the list as it was when I left off in 2010. The books I had completed were:

And the ones still in progress or not yet started were:

I have finished a few of those books, so here are my thoughts.

Orthodoxy was pretty good. It's been long enough now that I don't remember it in detail, but it's a fairly interesting account of Chesterton's religion and philosophy. I don't remember it featuring the kind of problematic ideas about women that were in What's Wrong with the World. Like almost everything Chesterton wrote, it's full of really quotable lines. It's definitely worth reading, at any rate.

Getting Past No was also an interesting book, and it had some really useful advice in it. The idea of the book, if I had to summarize it in one sentence, is, "Try to make it as easy as possible for the person you're negotiating with to construct a solution that's good for both of you." It's a little more complex than that, though; I feel like I'm leaving some things out.

It does have a few problems, and it recommends some strategies that make me wonder what the author was thinking. For instance, he describes a case in which a woman is negotiating with two men over the price of a used textbook, and the men are employing a trick in which one offers a stupidly-high price and the other suggests cutting her a deal by offering her a price that seems much better but is still more than the book is worth. The suggested approach: The woman should compliment the men on the quality of their good-cop/bad-cop routine and then, with a laugh, suggest that they now get started negotiating for real. I'm sorry, but that would come off as incredibly condescending. People don't like being accused of things, especially when the accusations are correct, but it's also possible the second guy honestly had a higher estimation of the book's value than the woman. Besides, the routine is obviously not so good if the woman saw through it so easily. There are a few other cases of strategies that made me think they'd probably make me less likely to cooperate if someone used them on me.

That said, the book is still an interesting read, and I did pick up some useful information.

The next one I finished was the Gospel According to Mark, but there's so much good material about the Gospels online already that I really don't think I have anything to add.

There were also a few books I've added to the list:

I already finished the two sci-fi novels within a month or two of receiving them as Christmas gifts. (You know I love Christmas gifts.)

Redshirts contains more crass sexual content than I'm comfortable with, and a scene late in the book wherein the characters are called out for their dirty minds is much appreciated, but really too little, too late. That problem aside, I greatly enjoyed the story. I should warn you that there's a plot twist in the middle that makes the book really something other than what I was hoping for (and what the cover blurbs were advertising it to be), and this normally would have upset me, but the writing was so good that I stuck with it to the end anyway. Speaking of the end, the three "codas" at the end of the book were really interesting and thought-provoking.

"Interesting" and "thought-proviking" would also be good ways to describe the January Dancer. They're also more central to the tone of the story. The downside is that it's a little too complicated for its own good. It jumps around so much at the beginning and introduces so many subplots that it's hard to tell who the main characters are. It also has an unfortunate preoccupation with the sexual exploits of one of its characters, to the point that it overshadows her considerable intellect and skill. I also resented the bait-and-switch of naming the book after a character (Captain January) whose story arc is rendered pretty much unimportant after he finds the eponymous treasure (the "Dancer"), a bit like the unnamed characters who find the bodies in the opening teasers of police procedurals. Overall it wasn't a bad read, and it had some moments of real beauty, but it also left me a little exhausted.

There are a few other books I've read in the last couple years, too, but I never even thought about the list at the time, so I won't go over them here. Maybe some other time.

So what about the ones I haven't finished yet?

I really like Fagin's The Artist's Complete Guide to Facial Expression so far. The problem I'm having is that I flipped ahead and looked at the pictures, so now every time I tried to read it, my brain goes into "I already read this" mode and starts skipping over stuff. It's still a great book, and I don't seem to have any problems using it as a reference work, but I may never actually finish my initial, cover-to-cover read-through.

I haven't made much progress on the Summa Theologica but that's mostly a function of setting it aside to focus on other things. It's really interesting so far. What fascinates me is that even though it sounds like this big, scary, impenetrable work of theological profundity, it was actually intended to be that era's equivalent of a ...For Dummies book. So it's actually quite readable.

I went ahead and took the two AJAX books off the list, since I don't plan on finishing them. They both have an awful lot of redundant code samples in them; if memory serves, both books have pretty much complete source code for every project, which means each book has its version of the function to create an XMLHttpRequest function repeated several times. Anyway, once you know how to use an XMLHttpRequest object (or just use jQuery), you can basically figure out the rest of it yourself, though I suppose the book's examples might prove helpful. Some of the examples also have you using AJAX for things that would be better off in my opinion without AJAX, but then again that seems to be the primary use of AJAX, so I can't really blame the authors for that. I'm not saying they're necessarily bad books; just that they didn't help me much, and learning AJAX from online sources is probably easier.

On that note, I want to revisit Wicked Cool PHP, even though I already wrote about it back in 2010. After the additional programming experience I've gained since reading the book, I can't really give it the same recommendation I did before. It has some good stuff, sure. But it also encourages terrible security practiecs like rolling one's own CAPTCHAs (and CAPTCHAs are breakable enough when done right) and using unsalted MD5 hashes to store passwords (which is better than plain text but still pretty easy to break). Not only does it not mention parametrized SQL queries, but it uses the obsolete mysql extension rather than mysqli (or PDO) and even recommends the "magic quotes" feature, which is so bad that it was removed from recent PHP versions, and the manual has a page devoted to why not to use it . It even uses rand(), which the manual says is not cryptographically secure, to generate "random" passwords. There's good advice as well, but nothing you can't pick up from sources that don't teach you to shoot yourself in the foot.

Security aside, it does have some interesting stuff, but most of it is stuff you can pick up from other sources (sometimes even just the PHP manual). People for whom any of this stuff is news would be better served by learning good programming practices like SOLID principles, design patterns, a development methodology or two, and (if it wasn't clear by now) how to write Web programs securely. You'll pick up the other stuff as you need it.

I think that covers all the bases for now. There are a few more books I'm interested in getting, but I won't add them to the list just yet. So here's what the list looks like now:

[Update: Fixed the missing link to the jQuery site. However, these days, vanilla JavaScript does just fine with less overhead. Also fixed a broken PHP manual link.]