Eighteen Classic Albums

A couple of months ago, I wrote a post about a process I had developed for producing ebooks. While dabbling in a few projects (none of which are anywhere near being finished) I established that the process worked and I was able to produce ebooks in various different formats.

But what I really needed was a complete book to try the process on, so that I could push it right through the pipeline so it was for sale on Amazon. I didn’t have the time to write a new book, so I looked around for some existing text that I could reuse.

Long-time readers might remember the record club that I was a member of back in 2012. It was a Facebook group where each week we would listen to a classic album and then discuss it with the rest of the group. I took it a little further and wrote up a blog post for each album. That sounded like a good set of posts to use for this project.

So I grabbed the posts, massaged them a bit, added a few other files and, hey presto, we have a book. All in all it took about two or three hours of work. And a lot of that was my amateur attempts at creating a cover image. If you’re interested in the technical stuff, then you can find all the input files on Github.

There has been some confusion over the title of the book. Originally, I thought there were seventeen reviews in the series. But that was because I had mis-tagged one. And, of course, you only find problems like that after you create the book and upload it to Amazon. So there are rare “first printing” versions available with only seventeen reviews and a different title. Currently the book page on Amazon is still showing the old cover. I hope that will be sorted out soon. I’ll be interesting to see how quickly the fixed version is pushed out to people who have already bought the older edition.

My process for creating ebooks is working well. And the next step of the process (uploading the book to Amazon) was pretty painless too. You just need to set up a Kindle Direct Publishing account and then upload a few files and fill in some details of the book. I’ve priced it at $2.99 (which is £1.99) as that’s the cheapest rate at which I can get 70% of the money. The only slight annoyance in the process is that once you’ve uploaded a book and given all the details, you can’t upload a new version or change any of the information (like fixing the obvious problems in the current description) until the current version has been published across all Amazon sites. And that takes hours. And, of course, as soon as you submit one version you notice something else that needs to be fixed. So you wait. And wait.

But I’m happy with the way it has all gone and I’ll certainly be producing more books in the future using this process.

Currently three people have bought copies. Why not join them. It only costs a couple of quid. And please leave a review.


How To Travel From London To Paris

Imagine that you want to travel from London to Paris. Ok, so that’s probably not too hard to imagine. But also imagine that you have absolutely no idea how to do that and neither does anyone that you know. In that situation you would probably go to Amazon and look for a book on the subject.

Very quickly you find one called “Teach Yourself How To Travel From London To Paris In Twenty-One Days”. You look at the reviews and are impressed.

I had no idea how to get from London to Paris, but my family and I followed the instructions in this book. I’m writing this from the top of the Eiffel Tower – five stars.


I really thought it would be impossible to get from London to Paris, but this book really breaks it down and explains how it’s done – five stars.

There are plenty more along the same lines.

That all looks promising, so you buy the book. Seconds later, it appears on your Kindle and you start to read.

Section one is about getting from London to Dover. Chapter one starts by ensuring that all readers are starting from the same place in London and suggests a particular tavern in Southwark where you might meet other travellers with the same destination. Chapter two suggests a walking route that you might follow from Southwark to Canterbury. It’s written in slightly old-fashioned English and details of the second half of the route are rather sketchy.

Chapter two contains a route to walk from Canterbury to Dover. The language has reverted to modern English and the information is very detailed. There are reviews of many places to stay on the way – many of which mention something called “Trip Advisor”.

Section two is about crossing the channel. Chapter three talks about the best places in Dover to find the materials you are going to need to make your boat and chapter four contains detailed instructions on how to construct a simple but seaworthy vessel. The end of the chapter has lots of advice on how to judge the best weather conditions for the crossing. Chapter five is a beginner’s guide to navigating the English Channel and chapter six has a list of things that might go wrong and how to deal with them.

Section three is about the journey from Calais to Paris. Once again there is a suggested walking route and plenty of recommendations of places to stay.

If you follow the instructions in the book you will, eventually, get to Paris. But you’re very likely to come away thinking that it was all rather more effort than you expected it to be and that next time you’ll choose a destination that it easier to get to.

You realise that you have misunderstood the title of the book. You thought it would take twenty-one days to learn how to make the journey, when actually it will take twenty-one days (at least!) to complete the journey. Surely there is a better way?

And, of course, there is. Reading further in the book’s many reviews you come across the only one-star review:

If you follow the instructions in this book you will waste far too much time. Take your passport to St. Pancras and buy a ticket for the Eurostar. You can be in Paris in less than four hours.

The reviewer claims to be the travel correspondent for BBC Radio Kent. The other reviewers were all people with no knowledge of travel who just happened to come across the book in the same way that you did. Who are you going to trust?

I exaggerate, of course, for comic effect. But reviews of technical books on Amazon are a lot like this. You can’t trust them because in most cases the reviewers are the very people who are least likely to be able to give an accurate assessment of the technical material in the book.

When you are choosing a technical book you are looking for two things:

  • You want the information in the book to be as easy to understand as possible
  • You want the information in the book to be as accurate and up to date as possible

Most people pick up a technical book because they want to learn about the subject that it covers. That means that, by definition, they are unable to judge that second point. They know how easily they understood the material in the book. They also know whether or not they managed to use that information to achieve their goals. But, as my overstretched metaphor above hopefully shows, it’s quite possible to follow terrible advice and still achieve your goals.

I first came aware of this phenomena in the late 1990s. At the time a large amount of dynamic web pages were built using Perl and CGI. This meant that a lot of publishers saw this as a very lucrative market and dozens of books on the subject were published many of which covered the Perl equivalent of walking from London to Paris. And because people read these books and managed to get to Paris (albeit in a ridiculously roundabout manner) they thought the books were great and gave them five-star reviews. Much to the chagrin of Perl experts who were standing on the kerbside on the A2 shouting “but there’s a far easier way to do that!”

This is still a problem today. Earlier this year I reviewed a book about penetration testing using Perl. I have to assume that the author knew what he was doing when talking about pen testing, but his Perl code was positively Chaucerian.

It’s not just book reviews that are affected. Any kind of technical knowledge transfer mechanism is open to the same problems. A couple of months ago I wrote a Perl tutorial for Udemy. It only covered the very basics, so they included a link to one of their other Perl courses. But having sat through the first few lessons of this course, I know that it’s really not very good. How did the people at Udemy choose which one to link to? Well it’s the one with the highest student satisfaction ratings, of course. It teaches the Perl equivalent of boat-building. A friend has a much better Perl course on Udemy, but they wouldn’t use that as it didn’t have enough positive feedback.

Can we blame anyone for this? Well, we certainly can’t blame the reviewers. They don’t know that they are giving good reviews to bad material. I’m not even sure that we can blame the authors in many cases. It’s very likely that they don’t know how much they don’t know (obligatory link to the Dunning–Kruger effect). I think that in some cases the authors must know that they are chancing their arm by putting themselves forward as an expert, but most of them probably believe that they are giving good advice (because they learned from an expert who taught them how to walk from London to Paris and so the chain goes back to the dawn of time).

I think a lot of the blame must be placed with the publishers. They need to take more responsibility for the material they publish. If you’re publishing in a technical arena then you need to build up contacts in that technical community so that you have people you can trust who can give opinions on your books. If you’re publishing a book on travelling from London to Paris then see if you can find a travel correspondent to verify the information in it before you publish it and embarrass yourselves. In fact, get these experts involved in the process of commissioning process. If you what to publish a travel book then ask your travel correspondent friends if they know anyone who could write it. If someone approaches you with a proposal for a travel book then run the idea past a travel correspondent or two before signing the contract.

I know that identifying genuine experts in a field can be hard. And I know that genuine experts would probably like to be compensated for any time they spend helping you, but I think it’s time and money well-spent. You will end up with better books.

Or, perhaps some publishers don’t care about the quality of their books. If bad books can be published quickly and cheaply and people still buy them, then what business sense does it make to make the books better.

If you take any advice away from this piece, then don’t trust reviews and ratings of technical material.

And never try to walk from London to Paris (unless it’s for charity).


Amazon Kindle

I’ve had my Kindle for about six weeks now and I love it. It’s lightweight enough that I take it pretty much everywhere with me and I always have plenty to read. The screen is great for reading books and the battery holds its charge for days – I’m currently only charging it about once a week.

The technology is great – but there’s a small issue. Content is hard to come by.

Ok, that’s not really the case. There are thousands of books available in the Kindle store. What I really mean is that content is hard to come by in a format that I’m happy paying money for.

Remember when buying music online was overcomplicated? When you had to be careful which web site you bought your music from because you might not be able to play it on your computer or your portable music device? When buying a track from one computer meant that you might not be able to play it on another computer? In short, do you remember DRM?

Well, that’s the stage that the ebook publishing seems to be at currently. They’re paranoid that people will share ebooks with each other and therefore they treat every customer as a criminal and place massive obstructions in the way of us using the products that we’ve bought. It’s really easy to buy ebooks from the Kindle store, but having bought that book you can only read it on your Kindle (or on other Kindle applications associated with your Amazon account). If in two years time I decide to buy a different ebook reader from a different company, it’s likely that I won’t be able to use it to read books I’ve bought for my Kindle. This is unacceptable to me, so I’m looking for alternative sources of ebooks.

The Kindle will happily read books that aren’t in the Amazon DRM format. It reads PDFs (although they don’t reflow in the same way as a real ebook) and Mobipocket files. So the problem becomes finding a better source of Mobipocket ebooks. Actually it’s easier than that as there’s a wonderful program called Calibre which will convert between various ebook formats.

Going back to the comparison with music, when music files were all DRMed, there were two sources that we all used to get music. We ripped our existing CDs and we (well some of us) used service like Napster to get hold of other music. Can we take a similar approach to books?

Of course, converting your existing library to ebooks is a bit of a non-starter. Scanning books takes far too long – and you’d end up with something that might well be difficult to convert to an ebook. I hear there are companies in Japan who will do the conversion for you for about a dollar a go. But you have to send the books to them and they do it by destroying the books. So that’s not really an option for most people.

So how about alternative sources. The first place that many of you will be thinking about is Project Gutenberg. Since 1971, they have been building a digital library of out of copyright material. And, yes, they produce Mobipocket versions of their books. In fact they recently changed the description of their Mobipocket versions to Kindle versions. You can get thousands of books from their site. I’ve already stocked up on Dickens, Shakespeare, Austen and dozens of other out of copyright works. If you want classic literature, then this site is all you’ll need.

But I don’t just want classic literature. I want other kinds of books too. As a geek, I like to read technical books. O’Reilly (one of the best technical publishers out there) make a huge selection of their books available as ebooks. Buying an ebook from O’Reilly gives you access to a pack of up to five DRM-free formats – which includes Mobipocket. So for technical ebooks I’m pretty much sorted. O’Reilly also allow you to upgrade from a paper copy of a book to the ebook edition for $5.

But this still leaves me missing some books I want. This lunchtime I was in Waterstones and I could easily have bought a couple of dozen new books. The new David Mitchell novel, Stephen Fry’s autobiography, the new Derren Brown book and many many more. Those are the books that I want to be able to buy DRM-free.

And let’s be clear here. I don’t want them DRM-free so that I can put them on a web site so that anyone can take a copy. I don’t even want to give copies to my close friends. I just want DRM-free ebooks so that I’m not tied to using an Amazon Kindle for the rest of my life.

When I asked about this on Twitter this afternoon I got basically two types of reply. Firstly, there were people who suggested bittorrent sites and other dubious ways of getting hold of ebooks. I’m not hugely comfortable doing that, but I’ll do it if that’s the only option. And some people pointed me at other sites that sold ebooks in various formats – for example Mobipocket’s site. These sites are ok if they have the books that you want to read. But I haven’t been able to find any of the three examples I listed above on any of these sites. I should also mention authors like Cory Doctorow and Charles Stross who always make free copies of their work available in various formats. These people are the exception rather than the rule and their trendsetting doesn’t solve my problem with getting the books that I want.

So it seems that we’re stuck where the music industry was five or six years ago. The publishers are all so paranoid that we’ll steal their content that they’ll make it unreasonably difficult for us to use the versions that they deign to sell us. And that’s a real shame. It’s pretty much a certainty that eventually they’ll realise that what they’re doing is stupid and at that point they’ll start making DRM-free content – as the music industry has done over the last couple of years. But it’s frustrating to have to go through all the same pain for a different medium. Why can’t the publishers learn from the record labels’ mistakes and skip ahead to their inevitable change of heart?

To summarise. I don’t want books for free. I don’t want pirate copies of books. I want to pay a reasonable price for an electronic copy of a book that I can read on any device that I choose. And that I’m free to convert to other formats as my reading devices evolve and change in the future.

Why is that so hard to find?


The Atheist’s Guide to Christmas

I’m usually a big fan of keeping christmas in December, but I’m quite happy to make exceptions for a good cause. And this is a really good cause.

Remember, the Atheist Bus Campaign? Well the people behind that campaign haven’t stopped campaigning and their book The Atheist’s Guide to Christmas is published this week. Ariane Sherine has gathered together contributions from dozens of well-known atheists. Contributors include Richard Dawkins, Ben Goldacre, Simon Singh, Charlie Brooker and Richard Herring. All proceeds from the book will go to the Terrance Higgins Trust.

Looks like it will be a great christmas present for all of your friends and family. But don’t wait until December – buy your presents now.

Remember – there’s probably almost certainly no god.


Books I Read in April 2008

A lot of books this month. But you might think that there was a bit of cheating going on.

The Bible: The Biography – Karen Armstrong
This is a book I’ve wanted to read ever since I saw it published in hardback last year. Actually, it wasn’t quite what I expected. I was expecting a lot more about the writing of the bible, but that was all covered in the first couple of chapters. Most of the book was about the history of the interpretation of the bible. It was all very interesting stuff. I recommend it.

The Children of Men – P.D. James
Something else that I had wanted to read for some time. In this case, my interest was piqued by seeing the film adaptation last year. This was one of the best films I saw last year so I really wanted to read the book. This is the first PD James book that I have read and I was very pleasantly surprised. The plot has major differences to the film, but it’s a great story and well worth reading. I understand that it’s not typical of James’s work though so I’m not usre that I’ll be rushing to read any more of her books.

Linux Networking Cookbook – Carla Schroder
Linux Server Hacks, Volume Two – William Hagen, Brian Jones

The first little bit of cheating. Neither of these books are really meant to be read from cover to cover, but I skimmed over them both over the course of a few days. Both of them do exactly what it says on the tin and if you’re interested in Linux systems administration then you’ll find one or both of these books to be useful.

The Fifth Child – Doris Lessing
This is this months book club book. I’ve read a couple of her books in the past and this has left me wanting to read more. I’ll probably start by tracking down a copy of the sequel – Ben in the World.

Lyra’s Oxford – Philip Pullman
More cheating here. This book is about twenty pages long. And the pages are tiny. I read it because I’m a big fan of the His Dark Materials books. But this is a pretty pointless extension to that series. I bit of a waste of time to be honest. But not much time.

A Spot of Bother (Mark Haddon)
Like pretty much everyone I know, I read and loved The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime a couple of years ago. That was always going to be a really difficult book to follow. This isn’t in the same league at all. But that’s not saying it’s a bad book at all. Far from it. I thoroughly enjoyed it and would recommend it to anyone. It’s just a shame that its predecessor gives everyone such high expectations which, realistically, were highly unlikely to be met.

Slam – Nick Hornby
A new Nick Hornby book is always a cause for celebration. This is apparently aimed at young adults, but you barely notice that. The protagonist is younger than you’ll find in Hornby’s others books, but other than that we’re on familiar territory amongst the middle class of Islington. There were a couple of chapters that didn’t really work for me. I can’t go into too much detail without giving spoilers, so I’ll just say that Hornby doesn’t seem particularly comfortable writing supernatural events.

Update: Removed one book which I realised I’d read in May, not April.


Books I Read in March 2008

Another month, another list of books read. I know how much you all love reading these lists.

number9dream – David Mitchell
I started this at the end of February. And, surprisingly, found it all a bit of a struggle. I say “surprisingly” because I’ve loved the previous two David Mitchell books that I’ve read – Cloud Atlas and Black Swan Green. This (earlier) novel just didn’t seem to work as well for me. I didn’t find the story engaging and the characters all seemed a bit one-dimensional.

Managing Software Development with Trac and Subversion – David J Murphy
Like January’s Catalyst, this is a book that I was sent to review by the publishers, so a longer review will appear elsewhere in the next couple of weeks. All I’ll say now is that it’s a completely pointless book and you would be wasting your time reading it.

Unweaving the Rainbow – Richard Dawkins
It’s only in the last three or four years that I’ve started reading books by Richard Dawkins. I’ve read the most recent ones and now I’m gradually going back through the older ones. Unweaving the Rainbow addresses the idea that by studying the universe in depth we remove the mystery and wonder. Unsurprisingly, Dawkins thinks this is complete nonsense and in the book he presents a compelling case for the opposite point of view – that an understanding of science increases the feeling of wonder he gets when contemplating the universe. This would be a great introduction to the works of Richard Dawkins as it doesn’t concentrate on evolutionary biology the way that some of his other books do.

The Man in the High Castle – Philip K. Dick
This was this month’s book club book. I read a lot of Philip K Dick twenty or thirty years ago, but for some reason I didn’t get round to this one. Which is a bit strange given that it’s generally considered his masterpiece. Perhaps the “future history” aspect wasn’t science fictiony enough for my younger self. Anyway, I’m glad that I’ve now corrected this omission as this is one of the best books I’ve read for a long time. It’s one of those books that is deceptively easy to read, but which you find yourself thinking about for some time after finishing it. Dick obviously worked out the history of his new future meticulously and I’m pretty sure it’s the kind of novel which will be well worth rereading.

The Steep Approach to Garbadale – Iain Banks
I’ve been a big fan of Iain Banks (not so much Iain M Banks) for many years. But, to be honest, his last few books have been a bit disappointing. Things like Whit, The Business and A Song of Stone seemed a little formulaic to me (even though they were all very different to each other). His last novel, Dead Air, was a lot better and with this novel I think he has returned completely to form. This reads a bit like a cross between The Business and The Crow Road and is exactly the kind of novel that I enjoy reading. If I had to make one criticism, it would be that the ending was a little too neat, but after almost four hundred pages of great writing I can forgive him that.


Arthur C Clarke

I’m convinced that if it wasn’t for Arthur C Clarke, Isaac Asimov and Robert Heinlein, then I wouldn’t read anywhere near as much as I do. It was through spending my childhood reading those authors (and others like them – but mostly those three) that I developed my love of reading. Oh, I admit that most SF isn’t exactly great literature and none of those three authors are literary geniuses – characterisation, in particular, seems to be a closed book to them – but they got me into a habit of always having a book with me. And for that I will always be grateful to them. I don’t read much SF these days, but I always think of it fondly.

Clarke outlived the other two by over fifteen years, but he died yesterday at the age of ninety. To be honest, I don’t think he wrote anything worth reading for about twenty years, but I still highly recommend novels like Childhood’s End[1], Rendezvous With Rama and Songs of Distant Earth.

If you haven’t read any Clarke, and want to give him a try then start with the short story The Nine Billion Names of God.

Overhead, without any fuss, the stars were going out.

[1] Which, shockingly, seems to be out of print. There’s a new edition due in August. Wonder if they’ll bring that forward now.


Books I Read in February 2008

Fewer books this month. It’s a shorter month, of course, but really I got a bit bogged down in a couple of books. I’m still reading David Mitchell’s number9dream, but I’ll finish it in a couple of days so it will be included in next month’s list.

Oh, and I read a few X-Men comic collections. But I’m not going to include those.

Beautiful Code – Andy Oram & Greg Wilson (editors)
I’m told that a good programmer learns a new language every year. If that’s true, then I haven’t been a particularly good programmer for the last few years as I’ve largely stuck with my core languages. I picked up this book as an attempt to address that. The book contains articles by a number of well-known programmers writing about what they find beautiful in their favourite programming languages. It is a useful overview of the programming languages that are in current use (there was even an article about FORTRAN – some people still use it). I now have a list of two or three languages that I want to learn more about (Erlang is top of that list) but, more interestingly, it has also reinforced some ideas that I had about languages that I don’t want to learn. Michael Feathers talks about the way that the FIT framework breaks all the rules of good Java design and describes code which is pretty much how I would have designed it. Charles Petzold talks about writing code that generates other code in C# and makes me very glad that I use a dynamic language.

A Thousand Splendid Suns – Khaled Hosseini
This is this month’s book club book. But it’s something that I would probably have picked up myself eventually. A couple of years ago I was interested in reading Hosseini’s first novel, The Kite Runner, but I never got round to it. Having read this one, I don’t think I’ll bother now. The novel is about the plight of women in Afghanistan under the Taliban. I think that it uses that obviously shocking background to give it emotional impact – which is a bit lazy on the part of the author. This background is really the only thing that the book has going for it. The characters are all very one-dimensional and the plotting is very simplistic (“oh no, the love of my life is dead”, time passes, “oh, wait, no he isn’t”) and the ending is as contrived as anything I’ve read. The book is getting a lot of publicity at the moment on the back of the Kite Runner film, but I really don’t think it’s good enough to justify the hype.

Rip It Up and Start Again – Simon Reynolds
Subtitled “Postpunk, 1978-1984″, this is a book about one of my favourite periods of popular (and not so popular) music. Postpunk was never really a single movement. It was a number of different styles all of which built on various aspects of punk rock movement. The diversity of postpunk can be seen from the range of bands covered in this book – it starts with Public Image Limited and ends with Frankie Goes to Hollywood. If you were buying slightly alternative music at the time covered by this book, or you appreciate the music of this period, then I strongly recommend reading it. One warning though – it’ll almost certainly have a detrimental effect on your bank account as you are reminded of music that you have forgotten and you no longer have copies of.


Books I Read in January 2008

The first of a (hopefully) monthly series. I say “hopefully” because I’ve tried do to things like this before. It never works.

Here are the books I read last month:

Atonement – Ian McEwan
I really don’t know why I’ve only just read it. I bought it when it was first published and even started reading it. But for some reason I put it down and didn’t pick it up again for about five years. I remembered that I hadn’t read it when the film was released last year and wanted to read the book before seeing the film. But I couldn’t find it then. It turned up whilst I was looking for something completely different over christmas, so I decided to finally read it.

I love Ian McEwan books. This one isn’t quite up to the standard of Enduring Love or The Child in Time, but it’s thoroughly enjoyable. And the basic plot device is really clever. If you’ve seen the film, then you’ll know the story. The film is a pretty accurate retelling of the novel. Still worth reading though as books are always better than films. Ok, maybe not absolutely always, but certainly when the book is as literary as McEwan’s are.

The Big Picture – Douglas Kennedy
I’ve joined a book group at work. So you’ll see me reading books that you wouldn’t normally associate with me. This is the first.

I really didn’t like this at all. The initial set-up introduced a number of stereotypical characters that I had no interest in. At times it just read like a shopping list of expensive photographic equipment. Then a Big Thing happens and the book changes direction. It doesn’t get any better though. The protagonist goes off and has a big adventure and meets a number of uninteresting people on the way. The book is purely plot-driven and the plot relies on some ridiculous coincidences. The best that can be said of it is that it’s a very easy read. I only wasted four or five hours reading it.

This is obviously a minority opinion though. The Amazon reviews are unremittingly positive. I expect they’re written by idiots. I recommend avoiding this book at all costs.

On Chesil Beach – Ian McEwan
Having taken years to read Atonement, I decided to get in really early with McEwan’s new novel. Or, more accurately, novella. It’s very short. The story is a interesting study of sexual innocence in the early 1960s and it’s full of McEwan’s trademark descriptive detail. Like Atonement it’s not one of his best, but it’s well worth a read.

The Ladies of Grade Adieu – Susanna Clarke
This is going to be a love it or hate it book. If you loved Clarke’s previous book, Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell, (as I did) then you’ll love this one too. It’s really just more of the same. Except that in this case you get a series of short stories instead of a really long novel. All of the stories are set in the same world as Strange and Norrell. Actually, there’s one exception – a story that is set in same universe as Neil Gaiman’s Stardust. But to be honest, there’s not much to differentiate Clarke’s universe from Gaiman’s. If you like the idea of an alternative history where fairies and wizards exist in England at the start of the nineteenth century, there’s a good chance that you’ll enjoy this book. If not, then you should probably avoid it completely.

Catalyst – Jonathan Rockway
Something a bit different to finish. This is a technical book about Catalyst, a framework for building web sites in Perl. This was a review copy, so I’ll be writing a full review which I’ll publish elsewhere on this site. It’ll be there soon. Honest.


Book Review: Google Analytics

I’ve written a review of Google Analytics by Mary E. Tyler & Jerri L. Ledford.

Executive summary – it really wasn’t what I was looking for.