Saturday, December 28, 2013

Dreaming in Code book review

It amazes me how seldom the death struggles and victories of programmers are ever sung. Behind every program and script there are intractable problems that had to be solved,  impossible deadlines, kludges and clever elegant solutions, wild goose chases, tears and triumphs; some of these worthy of epic poetry or of Agatha Christie. Few of these stories ever surface into public consciousness.

After a fashion, Dreaming in Code opens this world to the larger audiences.

Starts fine, comparing software coding to bridge building and pointing out the ways in which wholesome projects break down. Somewhere around here the author refers Britcher's The Limits of Software  as " a disjointed, but impassioned book". Ironically, the same description applies to Dreaming more and more as it progresses: it jumps from here to there making the reader only catch glimpses of what the author tries to show, but not in an ordered fashion. This is not an altogether a bad thing: this is one of those books where you can open it at any page, begin reading and find something interesting to be delighted with.

There is central thread though, Mitch Kapor's Chandler project. We get the inside scoop of its development, decisions and travails. This is where in one way or another the anecdotes sprout and return to. There are also about half a dozen previous books on programming projects that the author frequently refers to, being The Mythical Man-Month the most cited. These mentions in a way feel quite similar to how the characters of the Hitchhiker's Guide to The Galaxy refer to the Guide as a beacon. With these books Rosenberg also shows that despite the better tools there is nothing new under the sun.

Tribulations are one thing. There is also a large component of programming philosophy which waxes towards the end. Programming, not being an exact science, has several schools of thought on how it should be done. Dreaming presents some of these, many relating to the work at hand, others, historical.

Notwithstanding its externally disordered nature, an overall nice book that warrants a reread here and there. Recommended if you have any interest in programming.

(If you want more on team projects try Code Name Ginger for a story on hardware. For a biology one, try the Billion Dollar Molecule) 

Saturday, December 14, 2013

Lapsang Souchong tea review

pinetreeside; source:www.adigitaldreamer.comWe have seen now different kinds of teas, some pure, some flavored. The pure ones derive their taste from their very own qualities plus some processing while the flavored ones generally get theirs from added elements such as fruits, petals or essential oils. One can still find a midway category between these two and here are those teas whose flavors are brought up by a moderate alteration of their nature. One example is the hoji-cha which was born when someone, either by insight or accident, roasted green tea leaves. Another, arguably, is the Puerh which is left to ferment. And another yet is the Lapsang Souchong of which will be talking today.

The Lapsang Souchong is a black tea from China that has the peculiarity of being smoked. It's discovery, no less, has been a boon to many.

This tea is probably the oldest member of my tea shelf and I inherited it, so to speak, from my dad who had tasted it once and bought some in London. The original batch was a Fortnum & Mason tin of whole leaf. It had stood there for over 20 years and when I finally began brewing some of it, I found that it had weathered the intervening years very well. When this ran out, we bought some more from the same company, these time in tea bags, and found that, well sure, the flavor was more pronounced, but it still was essentially the same.

The Lapsang Souchong teas are smoked by drying the larger Lapsang tea leaves over pinewood fire. The resulting smoky flavor is not quite like those found in hams or salmon. It rather has its own distinctive taste. Nowadays, having run out of all Fortnum leaf, I brew from that of my local provider and with this even the taste of sap is clearly present.

The Lapsang flavor is intense and can even be too powerful for some. Thus, brewing time is an important aspect to watch for.  Unless you really, really love smokiness, an overbrewed Lapsang can be unpleasant, even undrinkable. I'd say experimenting with shorter infusion times is the right way start for newcomers. It can also be an interesting ingredient for those who prepare their own household blends as a relatively small amount of leaf can lend a touch of smokiness to a base mix or even add piquancy to otherwise flat brews.

On a few occasions I've prepared some as iced tea and, though good, it generates some  dissonance as one's mind tries to harmonize the flavor with the drink's temperature.

I also think that it can be a very agreeable companion to those who have or like to stay up late. For the way ahead preparing a cup or pot in early evening can provide a warm feeling for a prolonged time. In regards to food, it pairs well with spicy cuisines, sausages, meats and more, and can even be accompanied with regular meals, but it will very likely overpower blander dishes.

In closing, Lapsang may not be for everyone, but for a great many it can bring joy and comfort and it is a fine example of what of what can be achieved tastewise with tea with just one step. 

Saturday, November 30, 2013

Dvoretsky's Endgame Manual: Chessbase version

Dvoretsky's Endgame Manual could be the book to go next after mastering the material of the any of the basic endgame books (I recommend Silman's). The contents are systematic and highlight what is important and what's not. Ratingwise I would discourage anyone below 1900 to read it however as these players could profit more from focusing more on tactics and saving this one for later. I myself am enjoying Müller's and Lamprecht's Secrets of Pawn Endings at this time, but wanted to give a quick comment on Dvoretsky's anyway.

You might not be aware of this but there exists a Chessbase electronic version of the book. Today I give it a look at its pros and cons.


  • Costs about the same as the printed version
  • The positions are organized in standard Chessbase format. These can be studied one at a time as in the printed book, and can also be sorted, searched, edited, etc.
  • Dvoretsky's "precise positions" (ie the most important ones) are given a medal for easy identification. So are exercises, piece play and others. This replicates what he does with font color and formatting in the printed version
  • Engine support
  • Tablebase interaction (not checked this one though)
  • Ease of replay
  • The text color appears to be less of an issue here. Some complain the light blue text on the printed work is hard to read.
  • Each exercise is given a line of its own, which stops accidental peeking at the answers
  • Chessbase Endgame and Strategy keys which help zero in the material of interest
  • Has an included reader


  • The material is there, sure, but feels bit forced into the chessbase format.
  • The included reader (Chessbase 7.0 reader) gets the job done, but is limited in comparison with the standard Chessbase database programs; better get one of the latter
  • It is not clear what edition the Manual is for this version. My guess is that it is not the latest
  • Need of a screen. Probably this one the biggest one. Printed text & diagrams feel much better and portability could be an issue.

By the looks of it this version wins almost hands down. On the other hand, at least for me, a lit screen feels unnatural. On the third hand one is understandably justified in not wanting to expend double just to get the best of both worlds.

A compromise

There is a way of sorts to have your cake and eat it too. If you own the standalone Chessbase program or the light version, you can select all the positions from the games tab and send that to print. Using a virtual printer, such as DoPdf, you can convert the output into a PDF and transfer that to a e-reader. Unnumbered text lines won't print directly and must be done and sorted by hand (more on the tools here). Also, medals won't print, but you can get around this by pre-annotating each position with the proper medal info in the annotator field.


Here's how the medals correspond to the text as far I can tell:

Blue text: Most important positions
Light green
Light green+dark green
One move at a time exercise
Dark blue
Dark green
On your own exercises labeled '?'
Regular black text



Saturday, November 23, 2013

Willpower Instinct by McGonigal book review

Probably one of the most wished for quality or virtue for oneself is, along with better memory and physical beauty,a stronger willpower. What we wouldn't give for that? Many of us believe that you've either got it or not, or that, if attainable, it might entail to enroll in a monastery or something. Great news: it is not necessary! The Willpower Instinct by McGonigal may very well be the only thing needed.

This book consists in a whole set of techniques that help overcome challenges that hinge on willpower.

Willpower focuses on real life, on the field application. The author goes about this on two ways: a)Only the immediately relevant information is given, meaning that she doesn't waste the reader's time on superfluous expositions, even if those might be interesting on their own; and b) involving the reader by asking him to look closely at how he or she reacts to certain situations to awaken mindfulness (Under the Microscope sections) and giving him things to try (Willpower Experiments)  to open previously unexplored and fruitful vistas. The result is a book that is full of approaches, some that reinforce each other, others that can work by themselves, to your particular willpower problem.

For my part, I find the concepts and exercises easy to get into, helpful and surprisingly powerful despite their apparent simplicity. All these are strong enough to deal with run of the mill willpower difficulties and can lend a hand in more difficult areas. Be warned however as it does not claim solutions for really big problems such as addictions or mental issues; professional help might be the best choice for these.

No fluff, all or most good, and just one read away. What more could you ask for?

Saturday, November 16, 2013

Small bear and the jar of jam

Here's a small children's story I wrote on my last birthday. Any Illustration you might send in will be appreciated.

There was once a small bear. One day she found a jar of jam lying in the forest. "Is it honey?" she asked her mom. Mamma bear smelled at the jar.
"No," she said "it is jam."
"Is it like honey?" asked the small bear "It smells sweet!"
"And so it does, but it isn't quite honey"
"Phewee, I sure wish it were"
"I can catch a salmon or two if you are hungry"
"Salmon would be nice, but honey would be even better!"
"My dear girl. Let us find then a honeycomb for my sweet little honeybunch"

And so they did and the small bear had her fill of honey.

Saturday, November 9, 2013

The Making of Modern Japan review

One of the reasons for reading is to answer questions. I had quite a few regarding Japan's place in history and world society so I decided to find out.

My questions were: Who are this Nobunaga, Hideyoshi, Ieyasu persons and gang that I keep hearing about? How did the Western contacts happen? How did evangelization take place and why it was ultimately uprooted? What triggered Japan to pass from a 'backward' & 'closed' country to a preeminent player in the world stage ? How did it turn imperialistic? What were Japan's campaigns in the rest of Asia? Was it close to winning? How did the relationship with the other Axis powers came to be and how did it work? How did it rose from the ashes?

I was lucky to find just the book that addresses most of these questions in Jansen's Making of Modern Japan; donated by the Nippon Foundation to my local university library no less (along with some dozen other titles. Thanks!). Just shy of 800 pages, it is a large book.  It includes some maps and some two dozen pages b&w photos of people & events. 

There are undeniable difficulties in Japanese history. One of those is that at each turning point the players and events convulse making them hard to follow. By no means the sequence is  a clear-cut matter. A more forgiving historian might try to smooth things over for the benefit of the general reader.  In Making Jansen cuts almost no slack.The book starts fine with the unifiers and early Western contacts, but then the magic somewhat fails. He frequently goes into deep detail mode as he really wants to make sure the reader gets all what it took into the shaping of the country making him go out of his way as to not gloss over anything. The result is a fine analysis on one part, but also some numbing stretches, particularly on the Tokugawa period. That's fine, I guess, if that's your focus, but at least for me less could  have been more.

Once contact with the major Western 19th century powers happens, the narrative gets traction once again interest-wise. With the Russo-Japanese war it shifts into gear, culminating in the Pacific war and beyond. By the time of the contemporary era, one feels that one is reading an entirely different book as the setting and events are easier to grapple with.

The other main problem with the subject matter is that it is frequently difficult to sort who is who. For many of us Westerners this is our first acquaintance with any of them and a quick look at the index readily reveals some two hundred names.

On the plus side it touched upon most of my blanks so in the end it suited me well in this respect.  However, I had to plough through too much to answer my questions. A better approach  would have been to skim-read it, instead of obstinately trying for completion. In view of this,  I hesitate to recommend it for the  general reader. If you have a very special interest in Japan, you're in for a treat; otherwise, look for something easier.

I have coming up next In search of modern China by Spence.  Having learned my lesson, I'll now skip whatever doesn't readily interest me, read what does and go back to whatever I feel I missed.

Saturday, October 26, 2013

House of Leaves Review

House of Leaves is a novel written by Mark Z Danielewski and it is unlike any other (my, one line so far and this is already starting to sound like a raving review;  bear with me for a sec while I'll explain).

Let's start with the plot.  It has at least three parallel storylines that work on separate levels and time frames and from the various character viewpoints. The main thread, and the rest in their own way, focus on a house. This house has something peculiar to it which, as time goes on, begins beckon it's inhabitants until it reveals itself as a full-fledged manifestation. The phenomenon clearly merits investigation and the rest of this storyline details its progress and ultimate results in a Blair Witch fashion (not a spoiler!). 

The other threads house the main narrative in a meta sense and revolve around it.

Now, this has been seen in one form or another before. The construction of the book adds another layer to what is already a riveting foundation making it leapfrog over others & wannabes. It starts pedestrian enough with text and footnotes. Then the footnotes begin to grow, other supporting material emerges, text boxes shift and rotate and towards the end the text itself become s part of the setting. Other devices used include text color, blot outs, quotes, color photos, some comic panels and more. Oh, and the book is also self-referential.

There are some unstated enigmas which the reader can try to unravel with the help of an included index (how many novels have an index?).

From so many schemes one must conclude that this book can only exist in physical book format. In fact it appears as if the author tried to push the format as far it would comfortably go. It is architectural. That's the one word summary. Other formats simply cannot do it justice, as House of Leaves is so very visual and spatial.  A movie perhaps could perhaps only capture part of the whole, but definitely not all.

In light of what has been said, this book will appeal not only to those who like weird stories and some horror, but also to those that like, or are involved in, story crafting and who like to see how all the pieces fit together. It will also be of special interest to those who love books as objects.  Despite being a paperback, it can find a place in any booklover's collection.

In a world quickly shifting towards e-readers and tablets after a couple of millenia of the codex rule, it is comforting and, why not, exciting to see the old format still pull new tricks.

5 stars
You can take a look at last year's Halloween special here

Saturday, October 19, 2013

Balashov: Relativistic traveler

Just something I found cute. In chapter 4 Part IX of War and Peace general Balashov is sent with a letter and a message to Napoleon from emperor Alexander. With all possible speed he sets forth on his mission only to fulfill it after a week or so of travel, arriving to the same city, the same building, and the same room were he was given his orders.  An early case of relativistic time dilation?

Saturday, October 12, 2013

Lonjing Dragon Well tea

The Longjing (aka Lung Ching)is a famous green tea from China that received the 1988 gold medal from the Institute of Quality Selection. At the present time I'm trying to get tea of differing  grades and locations for a project of mine and this Longjing has been in my radar for a while. I finally got a few grams at my local teashop.

Must say that I had some high expectations for this one. Among these, was to get a high grade alternative to Japanese sencha. Had to be tasty and not too expensive. It passed latter requirement with 100g@$17. I was underwhelmed with the former: it was too difficult to get anything out of it. Here's what happened on the first go.

3 minutes: almost transparent; tasteless
4 minutes: same aspect; still tasteless
5 minutes: some pale color now; still a long way to go
7 minutes: greenish golden liquor; faint flavor
10 minutes: marginally more intense; about the same taste
15 minutes: Oh, I give up. It is not giving anything more.

I know, I know, these are unusual steeping times for green, but I had to know if something would turn up in the end. One can get more from regular white tea on a quick steep than from this one. On the positive side it never turned bitter.

Now, really; I was half-jesting in the last paragraphs. Subsequent trials were more successful by adding more initial leaf: this compensated the faintness enough to yield a pleasurable brew. Since this is my first time with this tea, I do not know if it should be this way. Maybe I got a bad batch or something. I got the very last couple of ounces from the big tin at the shop and even the owner asked me if I was sure to take it all. "Sure! Pile it on!"

When properly prepared I find something buttery about it. As with the rest of the Chinese greens that I've tasted, this one stays well-behaved and rounded. Another plus is its non-grassiness.

So, pending an alternative source, I'd say skip this one in favor of other alternatives and come back to it later.

Saturday, October 5, 2013

Theodore Rex

Bio writer Edmund Morris has a top-notch trilogy on Theodore Roosevelt: The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt, Theodore Rex and Colonel Roosevelt. I've read all three on audiobook format and wanted to say that the centerpiece, Theodore Rex, which comprises Teddy's years in the White House is ironically the driest of the trio and wanted to give a warning. Unlike the other two, in which the charm of Roosevelt shines, this one emphasizes the political agenda to a higher degree which swamps the anecdotal. Up to a point, that's fine if that's the reader's interest or has to know the finer points of the policies followed during TR's tenure. But to me these felt like too much. Also, in the case of the unabridged audiobook version, the reader is a different person. The reader for the first and third books, Mark Deakins, is so good that you feel as if Teddy himself was speaking, specially when he imitates his quirks. In conclusion, T-Rex feels so different as to appear written by another author and that's no good. Go for the abridged edition.

Update 4/18/15: I'll backpedal a bit here. I'm rereading Theodore Rex and, if taken by itself, it is an enjoyable experience after all. The first sections in which Mr Morris, sets President Roosevelt's agenda is well-woven with the final trip of William McKinley and that the newly sworn-in to Washington covering the personal, political, international, domestic, economic and that of conservation in an attractive way. This echoes the profile of the big T at the start of the first book. The rest of the book is first-rate on the day-to-day proceedings and events and once it gets rolling has its own charm if taken on its own. Once more, the interweaving is to be noted for its seemingly effortlessness and the periodic appearances of the Roosevelt children always brings a smile. Even if its breaks the continuity, if you are planning of tackling the trio, start with this one first   Had to be fair.

Saturday, September 28, 2013

Nineteenth century rich men side by side

I recently read some biographies of XIX century American magnates both to get a better feel for the period and to hopefully learn something useful. There was a  small problem though. Their lives were so parallel on some areas that I began confusing parts of them around. So, to sort things out I made an outline by year and here it is for anyone to use. Some events might be off by a year.


Sources are Andrew Carnegie by Nasaw, Titan by Chernow, The Great Pierpont Morgan by Lewis Allen, The First Tycoon by Stiles, Dark Genius of Wall Street by Renehan and Mellon by Cannadine.   The two books that I enjoyed best were Nasaw's and Cannadine's in that order.

Saturday, September 21, 2013

Glenn Gould first time listening

    Some people revile his playing, others adore it. That's Glenn Gould. For my part, count me in the fan side. He's idiosyncratic, but that makes him endearing. He hums at playtime, but I like how it adds to the composition (ok, count me among the heretics as well). If you ever decide to listen to his Bach playing, may I suggest you do so in the following order as I believe it will  bring more delight than doing it randomly :

    1. The Goldberg Variations, 1955 recording. Of course one must start with the Goldberg, not only because it was the 'first' chronologically, but because it sets the tone for the rest of his recordings. If you have never heard this version before, you are in for a good surprise.
    1. The Well Tempered Clavier Vol 1
    2. The Keyboard Concertos (along with Leonard Bernstein). First with the BWV 1055
    3. The English Suites
    4. The French Suites
    5. The Partitas
    6. The Tocattas

    These will give you the most accessible pieces. Probably the most difficult to listen to up to this point are the French Suites. If you have come this far and still want more, you can continue with:

    1. The Well Tempered Clavier Vol 2. I find this one more difficult or 'drier' than Vol 1 for some reason
    1. The Art of Fugue. Gould on the organ!
    2. The 'Italian' album. A miscellany of some pieces he disliked, but quite good nonetheless

    Now, there is also this one which might be saved for last

    1. The sonatas for violin & harpsichord with Laredo

    Wherever you you decide to stop, close with

    1. The 1981 Goldberg Variations

    On the non-Bach front I find the Gibbons album almost a must, while the Hindemith unsortable.  There is also an album with Gould's own compositions, that includes So you want to write a fugue? that for me is mostly a curiosity. There is also a well-regarded Haydn Sonatas album that I've not listened.

    Now that I'm on a roll, I want to also a full-hearted shout-out to Bazzana's biography of Gould Wondrous Strange. It is among the top three of the most enjoyable biographies that I've read. Frequently  'couldn't put it down' is an exaggeration. This time it isn't.

Saturday, September 14, 2013

The longtailed rooster and the hermit

There was once a longtailed rooster. He was the most beautiful bird in the area and was much cared for and admired. So much so that even since he was a chick, it was decided that he would compete in the neighboring big town beyond the hills. The longtailed rooster grew proud and certain that he would win when the time came.

Standing on its high perch, he once saw a sorry creature arrive into town. It was a hermit. What would he want here? He was bent and his clothes were all tattered, if clothes could be called to the rags hanging on him. He was also silent not opening his mouth to say anything. As  the longtailed rooster peered him the townsfolk began curiously to gather round the man. It was the eve of the competition and the next day in the longtailed rooster expected to be taken beyond the hills.

Saturday, September 7, 2013

The Zen Life Book Review

I wanted a book about Zen. If you look around, there are very many. Problem is that most of the books one finds are about learning and doing Zen. There are primers, manuals, story collections with fables such as The Hermit and the Long Tailed Rooster (never heard about that one? I just made up the title). Though valuable, I didn't want any of these; I didn't want to practice, become a monk or become enlightened or at least not at this point. What I wanted was a book that looked at Zen from the outside. What I wanted was more of 'this is', rather than a 'how to'; a window into the practice if you will. I was about to settle with a documentary or video from YouTube when unexpectedly I found just the book I wanted in my dad's very own library.

The Zen Life is a small book written in English by native authors. It is divided into two parts. The first one consists of 101 black-and-white photographs taken at Empuku-ji monastery that illustrate the ordinary activities of a Zen monk coupled with very brief explanations. The second part looks at the former and gives a more extended commentary. The photographs are top notch and capture the essential elements clearly. One can tell that these were taken by a pro. It doesn't take much to flip through the hundred and, guess what, this is a good thing. Looking at the pictures can serve as a quick relaxation treatment.

The explanation section covers a great deal of ground. It centers mainly round the monks' daily practices, from zazen to eating and sleeping, but it also addresses zen monasticism in the context of society at large. This part is written by a psychologist and the rational or philosophy of each facet is briefly treated upon. Some calendar events are also explored.

If you are in the position of wanting to know, but do not want to practice, this is a good book that can satisfy your interest.

As a runner-up there's
Asking About Zen: 108 Answers by Jiho Sargent

For intro practice and philosophy try:

Zen Mind, Beginner's Mind by Shunryu Suzuki

In closing, a nice project to consider is to contrast what happens here in The Zen Life with the experience of the Carthusians in the documentary film Into Great Silence (recommended!). 

Saturday, August 24, 2013

Inside Scientology Book Review

Waterspout; Source: Burningwell.orgScientology is an interesting religion and organization. But it is also a shy one, not wanting to divulge its private matters, which only adds to its mystique and interest. Over the years it has been subject to attack from disgruntled ex-parishioners and others.

On her book, Inside Scientology: The Story of America's Most Secretive Religion, Rolling Stone contributing editor, Janet Reitman lays bare the inner workings of the church basing her writing on documentary research for most of the early years and on interviews with current and former members of the church for more recent times.

Starting with the man, L Ron Hubbard, she follows him from his initial science fiction years, wanderings and then moves to Dianetics and the founding of the church. As the church itself grows in importance the focus of the book shifts more to the organization and by the the second half Reitman looks at it under its current head.  As she goes along, she introduces the lingo, tenets and workings church and how these change or evolve as needs arise. She also explains the technology of the church including the Bridge to Total Freedom from preclear to the OT levels.  The everyday experiences of regular members are also illustrated, along with those from the higher echelons and the superstars.

Controversial topics are covered head-on; so much so that the Lisa McPherson, which perhaps is the greatest scandal the church has faced, is given its own chapter and covered in detail. Others are also dealt and  placed within the larger context. In the acknowledgements section the author claims to have double checked all the facts and erred on the side of caution.

The result from her research is a book that places the religion under a pretty bad light. Of the total, I'd say there's a 3:1 proportion of unflattering assertions. These are not in-your-face or venom dripping; in fact these just surface as if on their own accord, but the high proportion makes one wonder if things in there can really be that bad. I don't know where truth lies on this subject but in the end Reitman pulls a verisimilar account.

Saturday, August 17, 2013

A Look at Darjeeling no.4: Ahmad

Today we close this small series on Darjeeling teas. What we have today are teas by Ahmad. As I said on a previous installment Darjeeling teas in the past have neither excited me or repelled me.

From what I seen, tea people are really nice  and those who sport the most knowledge, those that can be called connoisseurs, tend to get their kicks through quality and grade over added flavorings. I claim no specialized knowledge and I like to think myself as falling somewhere in between connoisseur and layman.

The first tea, the Ahmad Windsor Darjeeling, is in loose leaf form. Once again, no tea grading info. With this Darjeeling I attempted to informally test myself and see if I could pull out some of its hidden flavors. The result: I couldn't. This tea tastes like... jalapeno! Not spicy hot, but it has all the flavor in there. Wow! I knew that tea could have subtle flavors, but I never imagined something so blatant.   This must be an anomaly. But if you like unusual flavors, but dislike added essences and/or flowers, by all means consider this one.

At the same time that I received this loose leaf as a gift, I also got a tin of English Breakfast teabags from the same brand. The tin looks very nice on the shelf, decorated with embossed beefeaters and English guards, but the contents' only redeeming quality is its strength. It is not Darjeeling by any stretch (nor claims to). This one is probably sold as a tourist trap, leading the unwary buyers to believe that they are getting a genuine English tea experience from their purchase. Talk about two opposing results from the same brand name.

Closing the series now, Darjeeling are fine teas to be sure. Through the series my views have indeed changed moderately in favor of the Darjeelings as a whole. This probably was helped in part by listening concurrently to Tea Rage podcast which trumpets the region. I still prefer my China, but now I begin to see somewhat clearly what the fuss is all about. Over the series there were a few surprises and unusual flavors. Of those tasted, I have to give best award to the First Flush form Golden Tips of Darjeeling followed by the Lipton loose.

Saturday, August 10, 2013

Books on the Founding Fathers

On this occasion a quick list of the books I've read on figures of the American Revolution. Not that many, but on the whole good. I rank them according to how much I liked them.

John Adams by McCullough
A more neutral look at this much maligned president and at his times. Some of his purported worst moments are mentioned but not all. Abigail Adams is also extensively treated.

The First American by Brands
Franklin and his business, scientific and diplomatic exploits. Felt that part on the Penns, though important, took too much space. My favorite figure.

Alexander Hamilton by Chernow
Much can be had of Washington's presidency from this one and on the making of the Federalist Papers. The first chapters on his youth I find the least interesting

Thomas Jefferson by Meecham
This bio leans towards Jefferson's exercise of power making it drier than the rest. More lively portraits of him  can be found in passing in McCullough's & Chernow's.  Some balmy domestic interludes are interwoven nonetheless.

Saturday, August 3, 2013

Physics For Future Presidents course

Have you ever wished that you knew more about science and how things work? Or maybe felt that despite having an otherwise well-rounded education, you do not have a so sure footing on science, in particular physics, and could maybe understand more if things could be easier math wise? If so, you're not alone. Many of us have wished for a better science grasp and as you may well know, this wish has been recently granted thanks to iTunesU.

ITunesU is a subsection of the iTunes store which holds classes and courses from different colleges and schools from around the country in audio and video. These higher education courses encompass almost the widest possible array of subjects. The best part is that they are all for free.

I have listened to a few, and thought of giving a shout out to one in particular. This one is Berkeley's Physics for Future Presidents imparted by Richard Muller.

This course can be thought as a quick, extensive course in everyday physics. It has an interesting angle, as it tries to answer what information must a US president needs to have on physics for effective policy decisions ranging from national security and terrorism to energy generation and use. Of course, what is true for the US president applies to regular citizens who wish to know more about the those policies, act and decide through their congressmen in the democratic exercise of their rights, and not be bewildered by the scientific concepts. This is achieved through high content conceptual emphasis over mathematical minutia. The end result is that course delivers making the world clearer and, for many, less intimidating.

The instructor, Dr. Muller, is top-notch in credentials and in teaching style.

I have only tried the audio version, but I don't think that I miss any of the concepts by using only my ears. Notwithstanding I was so enthusiastic about the course that I bought the accompanying textbook, or tried to. One must be aware that there are actually two main books books by Dr. Muller under the same name. One, the said textbook on two editions, the fall 2007 and the updated 2010 edition; the other, a condensed version of the material, aimed for the general public in paperback grey cover. I, alas, got the latter. Still good and as clearly explained as in the audio, but not the flagship. 

If you're more visually oriented,  the course is also available on YouTube

In closing, need to mention Asimov's Understanding Physics as a possible second companion to the course.  It's fine contentwise, but be wary as it somehow is without the charm of Asimov's other works.

Saturday, July 27, 2013

Learning Python on the cheap: Community Service

Time now for another community service. Today I post some links to sites that offer free online Python instruction. What follows has already been previously been posted in one form or another elsewhere. However, I find the resources so good that I cannot refrain from flagging them.

Everyone has their own learning preferences. For me, it's books of course; so I went researching for possible textbooks. After a while it turned out that one didn't have to fork any money for some of the better regarded books on the matter as these were, and still are, offered legally for free online.

Think Python

This one was the best suited for me as I already had a bit of programming experience. Best part is that it includes exercises. Skipped Ch4 as I couldn't get the module running but it's safe to do so.


Learn python the hard way

I didn't quite like the approach, but it's the easiest of the bunch.

Dive into python

The Python tutorial


There are surely tons of instructional videos out there. Check those out if you prefer that media. Also take a look at the courses offered in ItunesU.

See if there are any live courses in your community centre.

Happily enough, all of the online books mentioned above display handsomely on a kindle ereader. If you can lay your hands on the larger screen dx, the experience gets even better.

Also ask around to see if your school/local library/organization/company has access to Safari Books or Ebrary. The first one holds all the O'Reilly books plus much, much more. The second one has many of the other standard books. The subscription fees for both are quite steep, but maybe you already have the right though your institution.

Saturday, July 13, 2013

The Costume History (Le Costume Historique) by Racinet

Sometimes it is difficult to imagine what people were like in the past, not only on outlook & beliefs, but on more basic aspects as well. What they wore is one of these.  Back in the XIX century Racinet among others made a study of the history of costume  and Le costume Historique is the result.

There are at least three different editions of this work by Taschen: the humongous 2003 deluxe tome, the 2009 white cover edition and the 2012 two volume edition. I got the 2009. Though still somewhat large in size it is now quite manageable compared with the 2003.

The collection itself consists on hundreds of dressed figures covering from antiquity (Egypt, Babylon, Greece, Rome) to the nineteenth century across cultures and social strata. Understandably, the largest portion of the book is destined to Europe and France in particular. A significant portion is devoted to arms and military outfit. There are also illustrations of various settings, such as the villa, the castle, the court. The illustrations are fair-sized, very detailed and cleanly reproduced.

The biggest caveat though, which I believe  is not  particular to this edition only, is the poor illustration reference key. It appears that Racinet wrote extensive commentaries on all or most of the figures. This info is not to be found here. The editors thought the commentary  too long and instead of that we get the illustrations all right but with laconic explanations. Couldn't they have offered a bit more, at least the headings for each figure? I feel cheated by this, but then again I'm the one to blame for not checking. One can get by by logic and educated guesswork  on some cases, but this is not always so. Oh, also the font is too small which can be a great hindrance for some readers. The cover also offers cause for complaint as can be soiled quite easily.

By itself, if you can look past the cons, it is a recommended book, particularly if you like fashion, ethnography, history or work on cinema or theater. Bear in mind that it is mostly eye-candy as it is.

There must be a good alternative out there. A first try is What People Wore When by Melissa Leventon. This repackages many of Racinet original images mixing in some by Hottenroth into a timeline. Though cheaper than Racinet it only uses a third of all available images (my estimate). On better footing is Histoire du Costume (20,000 Years of Fashion: The History of Costume and Personal Adornment) by François Boucher which might be it. On the plus side it has way more text, extends into the twentieth century and includes photos. However, it is comparatively shorter on actual images. On the same vein is A History of Costume by Kohler which is more analytically inclined. These last two are more scholarly and in a sense oppose the current image oriented Racinets. If English costume is your thing go for Historic Costuming by Truman (b&w). Finally, if you anyway love eye-candy, get Fashion (2 vols) by the Kyoto Costume Institute. This has close-up photos of museum pieces and the fabrics look oh, so beautiful.

Saturday, July 6, 2013

A Look at Darjeeling no.3: First Flush

Picking up from where we left last time with the Golden Tips of Darjeeling, today we taste the higher  grade  of the pair: the First Flush.  Golden Tips has plenty  premium teas for sale, but this one appears not be quite on that category though it is a bit more expensive than the Kanchan view and in a smaller package.  

I sent a message to the Golden Tips people through there website to know more about the teas I had with me (Kanchan, and First Flush) before review, but received no answer. Like the previous teas on this series, there is no indication of leaf grading.

So well. When opening the First Flush packet I expected to find something similar to the Kanchan in size and color, but instead I was surprised with almost silvery leaves. For a moment I thought that it might be white tea, but on brewing the first pot, I discovered that it was something quite out of my experience.  Not white tea definitely; but something  in between black and green that defies my precise identification. Gets close to an honest black, but doesn't quite get there on liquor aspect or taste. The brew color, in fact is quite clear with the color of fresh straw moving a bit into lemon.

However, the resulting infusion can be quite good. After half a dozen trials I've got to know this one better. It is delicate and sensitive to to brewing time. About 10% more of the usual black tea amount is needed to give it strength, while  a short infusion time must be followed. Around 3 1/2- 4 minutes yield the best results; a faint bitterness shatters the flavor if left any longer. Also, in my experience, it works better when brewed a cup at a time over a whole teapot. Can't explain this.

As said, the taste is delicate, yet not as faint as that of a white tea. No undernotes did I find. The Darjeeling maltiness is more present than in the Kanchan View, but still comparatively subdued.

So far, this has been the best Darjeeling of the ones I've tasted.

Saturday, June 29, 2013

Wishlist for a Chessbase endgame challenge database

The people over at Chessbase have a quite nice selection of training software. These, along with the ones from other providers, such as Chess Assistant, oftentimes prove superior to printed materials because of chess engine and database support, digital organization and the occasional multimedia features such as highlights and video commentary (tiring your eyes by looking at a screen is the biggest downside, but that's off-topic).

From Dvoretsky's manual
Taking a look at their endgame software selection I cannot help but feel there is  gap in there: the lack of a proper endgame challenge database. Let's examine what they do have: there are the Karsten Müller series, now past a dozen; a couple of DVDs by Danny King; Dvoretsky's manual, which in Chessbase media might be its best embodiment; and Kasimdzhanov's Endgames for Experts; all of these, instructional. In light of this, I believe it is high time for them to prepare a database program that tests or challenges the player on the wide-ranging fields of the endgame. Here's my wishlist:

  • Be at least a couple thousands big. Up to a point, the bigger the better. Would-be solvers need a room to exercise
  • Be categorized, probably supported by the endgame key features
  • Include all areas, not just, say, rook or pawn endings
  • Resist the temptation to include studies for difficulty's or beauty's sake. Include them, by all means, only when illustrative of the theme at hand.
  • Allow solving, but of course

  • Be in standard *.cbh format
  • Include exercises all the way to master strength and, perhaps, just a bit beyond
  • Offer some sort of solving ladder such as by difficulty (good) or rating bracket (best perhaps). All the material lumped together wouldn't do
  • Offer commentary and/or variations on key positions in a way that clarifies the theme, and on possible, relevant alternatives
  • Allow the solver to test herself on a theme or, if possible, on a random mix of several
  • Be affordable
  • Not be spread over several volumes. Everything fits on a single DVD

Many of these features already exist in the competing Convekta product Chess Endgame Training by IM Alpert, which has an over a decade head start over Chessbase. What brings this one down are the clunky Convekta conventions that can be painful to use.

Go on Chessbase! Show us!

Side note: if studies are your thing, check out Harold van der Heijden's superb database at

Saturday, June 22, 2013

The Definitive Bio of PDQ Bach

For those who are already well acquainted with PDQ's albums, the PDQ experience doesn't end with the CD's and odd videos. Back in the 70's Prof. Schickele released The Definitive Biography of PDQ Bach.

This book attempts to lay rest once and for all those critics that still doubt the existence of PDQ doing so with a rich documentary exposition. While at it, it also gives ample info on the author's experience of working with PDQ's music, his job at the University of Southern North Dakota and relic-finding digs.

We also get sketches of some of PDQ's associates, such as Jonathan Boozey Hawkes, prince Fred and Pater Martini, who are just mentioned in the recordings. There is also the complete (at the time of the writing) catalog of PDQ's compositions with commentary and illustrations divided on his three creative periods  and list of recordings.

There is an audiobook version of this book read by Prof. Schickele himself. I've not listened to it, but it appears to be a very abridged version as it only tallies about an hour of material.

There is at least another use for this bio. As a prank try giving a copy to a friend and see how long it takes him to decide on the veracity of it.

Overall, a very nice, funny book and a must for those who are already interested on PDQ. It can be purchased used online very cheaply. Go for those of the best conditions. My copy had some pages missing.

Saturday, June 15, 2013

PDQ Bach: Gateway to classical music

Classical music can be very boring. So boring in fact that it can effectively be used to put someone to sleep.  No surprise here. However, have you noticed how in record stores there's always a classical music section, oftentimes of sizeable extent? Maybe there's something to it, else they wouldn't dedicate so much space to the genre. Maybe we are missing out on something by not taking a closer look.

If only it were not sooo boring.

The music of P.D.Q. Bach is a great way to get to know and listen to classical sans stupor. PDQ has nothing to do in reality to the better known JS Bach; rather, he is a fictional character invented by the American composer and musicologist Peter Schickele.

This PDQ happens to have  a mind is so twisted by fate/booze/genetics that  coupled with his utter lack of talent has made his works all but lost. However, dutiful Prof. Schickele has unearthed many of his pieces in unusual places by luck or by commisioned discovery. As it turns out many of the themes that PDQ uses have been taken (read:borrowed [read: stolen]) by later  composers and then made popular (or maybe the other way around as PDQ's lifespan is problematic and most [all] of his output was fueled by plagiarism).

Be it as it may, the odd characteristics of the compositions turned out to produce a well-defined psychological effect on audiences: hilarity. And this what, in part, makes this music so special: you cannot be bored with music that makes you laugh. And indeed the music is very funny and entertaining and it's classical music! The compositions, too, are very clever and make use of a wide range of musical devices and instruments, some specially crafted for or adapted by PDQ.

It is strange how we find humor even on abstract stuff and in music, doubly so. It was high time someone opened this vein.

The principal way to listen to PDQ are still CDs. I wouldn't try Youtube or Mp3s as it might get tricky to choose among individual pieces. Each Cd has a listening plan and it would cause undue confusion not to follow it. PDQ's album output is vast and is divided between the Vanguard and Telarc labels, the former having the earlier recordings and the latter the most recent ones. Probably the best albums to begin with are, Two Pianos are Better Than One from Telarc  and an Evening with PDQ Bach from Vanguard. Two pianos, in fact, was my first PDQ album and I got it quite by accident in one of those "Choose 5 Cds for 2.79 ea." catalogs and the music was so plausible and yet so odd that it took me many months of informal listening before smoking out its true nature . I still consider it one of the top 5. Now, for non- German speakers, Black Forest Bluegrass is best left for the end as it is sung in that language. Also, the most recent album, The Jekyll and Hyde Tour, is somewhat unlike the others (I can hear Prof Schickele now: "Each PDQ Cd is unlike the rest. Whaddya expect?"), so also skip that one for now.

I don't think that listening to this music might, by its contrast, make you less inclined to listen to serious composers. On the contrary, it might help a non-classical listener venture a bit further afield.