Zed book review


Zed by Joanna Kavenna s not a happy tale in the same way that 1984 is not a happy tale. However, it is a very relevant one in the same way that 1984 is very relevant.

Zed is set in the near enough to be scary future and tells of the travails of Beetle, an all encompassing tech company that is in no way similar in reach and vision to companies like Facebook and Google. Not at all.

Beetle is everywhere, and is using its everywhereness to provide everyone with a handy “lifechain” which is able to predict what you might do before you do it. The story explores what happens when pesky humans start behaving in ways which the lifechain doesn’t predict and how Beetle is forced to come up with the idea of “Zed”, an imaginary quantity that defines this unfortunate characteristic. Mitigating Zed becomes a company priority with bad results for just about everyone.

It’s a lovely description of how people, companies and governments can justify, rationalise and institutionalise evil without anyone being consciously malicious. You’re never quite sure where the evil is coming from. Bad things seem to happen to good people as an emergent behaviour of the system, rather than having been mandated by any particular person.

If you have any interest in the future you should read this book. It won’t leave you with a warm feeling that things are all going to be OK with our benevolent corporate overlords, but it will give you a lot to think about.

Get Coding! A great book to start programming

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I found this book in a library. But, given that it represents really good value for such a well written text with full colour pages, you should buy your own copy.

The title is a tiny bit misleading though. There is coding in the book, but there is also a lot of HTML and CSS type stuff which is not really programming, but you need as a framework to hold the JavaScript that readers end up writing. The context of the code exercises is beautifully set out, with lovely illustrations and and engaging characters being used to build a fun narrative. It also has a few things that a kid learning to program could use to “impress mum”, always a good thing.

If you’ve got kids this who fancy a go at coding this would be a great starting point. There is also a follow on text (called Get Coding 2!) which has more coding and a focus on game development.

Programming books for kids

I was in the lovely Little Bookshop in Leeds today and I noticed that they had a display filled with books about engineering and coding for kids. Lovely stuff. I’ve bought a couple of books from the shop, and I thought I’d mention them in ye olde blogge.

I’ve put these in the blog post as Amazon items because I’m lazy and its easy to do (which is, in a nutshell why I use Amazon) but what I really want to you to do is go to Leeds, visit the bookshop and buy them there. There’s something really nice about browsing through interesting books in a pleasant environment (and they do great coffee and their Rocky Road cake is fantastic).

This is a beautifully presented book and makes lots of really good points about the what software development really is.

For my money it would have benefited slightly from a bit more detail about some of the topics covered, and a bit more programming context for each, but is a very pleasant read and as useful for grown-ups as it is for kids.


This is another beautifully presented book, but in this one the focus is on writing code. The text uses the tried and trusted technique of creating interesting applications and learning about code as you do that.

It’s done very well, there’s great use of colour and layout to explain what the various code elements do.

The programs as presented are great fun and could be the basis of even more interesting bits of code. It would be great to see a follow on text that built on what was described here.


Both of these books complement each other well and are pocket money priced (at least I think they are). They would make great additions to the bookshelf of any kid (or adult) that wanted to dip their toes into coding or at least know a bit about what it is that computers actually do.

Hull Architecture

I must admit that I've never really thought of a place like Hull as having architecture. It's just got lots of nice buildings.

However, I've found out a lot more about the area from this book, which even told me who designed the place I'd spent nearly 40 years of my life working in at the university.

This version was published in 2010, which means that it was just in time to be able to give the low down on places like The Deep.

It's a great reference and even has guided walks around the city. If you're coming to Hull for something City of Culture related, and you want a well written, well researched and good to read guide to where we live then it is well worth a look. 

Tetris by Box Brown

I don't have many claims to fame. But one is that I once had my picture taken by Alexey Pajitnov, the inventor of Tetris and thoroughly nice man. It was when I was helping out with Imagine Cup Judging in Russia. Alexey and myself were alone in the judging room and I was trying to pluck up the courage to ask him for a picture.

Then a student came in, took one look at me and asked "Can I have a picture with you?". He was one of the competitors, another thoroughly nice chap, and he wanted a picture of himself with one of the judges (i.e. me). He asked Alexey to take the shot, and Alexey obliged. I never got a picture of me with the man who invented Tetris, but having my picture taken by him seems somehow better.

Anyhoo, I was reminded of this when I came across this awesome book by Box Brown. The story of Tetris is fascinating on a whole bunch of levels, and the presentation in beautifully drawn pictures does a great job of telling the tale. If you like video games, social history, business shenanigans or well drawn art, you should get this book.

"Soul of a New Machine" now on Kindle

One reason why I liked Ada's so much is that they had a computer book club and their next meeting was going to discuss "The Soul of a New Machine" by Tracy Kidder. 

It is one of my all time favourite books. 

It's supposed to be about building a computer, but really its about people. It's about management, ego and human interaction. Along with a good dollop of how computers work. 

It was written a while back, but still holds lessons for anyone who wants to get thing done. I lent my printed copy to someone (no idea who) a while back and I didn't fancy buying another paper copy. What I wanted was a Kindle version I can carry around on my phone. 

And now I've got one. Amazon have just released the electronic version. If you are in any way serious about computers or management you should read this book. Oh, and it also holds some lessons about how to write a compelling story. A fantastic read.

Get the Harry Harrison Megapack

Harry Harrison was one of the greatest science fiction writers you've probably never heard of. He wrote a whole bunch of fantastic stories including the Stainless Steel Rat series and my favourite, "The Technicolor Time Machine" (go find it - you'll thank me later). He was particularly good at the science fiction short story. 

If you fancy finding out more about his work there's a really good value pack of his stories available on Amazon. For less than a pound you get a whole bunch of content including two of his Deathworld stories. 

Well worth seeking out.

The Thrilling Adventures of Babbage and Lovelace is a Winner

One of my favourite books ever has won a prize. I blogged about it a while back and now it (or more properly the author, Sydney Padua) has won the British Society for the History of Mathematics 2015 Neuman Prize. Yay!

If you are into computing, history, maths or comics you should have this book. A perfect stocking filler for Christmas, if you are in the habit of wearing quite large, book sized, stockings. 

It really is a great book. In fact, I'm going off to have a read of my copy now. 

Read "The Innovators"

For the past few weeks I've been working my way through "The Innovators: How a Group of Inventors, Hackers, Geniuses and Geeks Created the Digital Revolution" by Walter Isaacson. It's a great history of computing, all the way from the letters of Ada Lovelace to the spelling mistake that made Google what it is today.

If "The Thrilling Adventures of Lovelace and Babbage" have whetted your appetite for a book that gives the full story of the machines that underpin so much of our lives you should read this book. Well written and well referenced, with some great background material.

The Thrilling Adventures of Lovelace and Babbage: Buy it

This is a completely brilliant book. The illustrations are fantastic and the research that backs up the content is exemplary. The book starts with the tragic and true story of Ada, Countess of Lovelace and her involvement with Charles Babbage, a 19th century inventor obsessed with the idea of using machines to perform mathematical calculations.

Ada has a background story that you really couldn't make up and the tale of how a poet's daughter became the first person on the planet to really think about what a computer could do is a compelling one.

Once the facts have been dealt with the action moves on into a parallel "Pocket Universe" where Lovelace and Babbage have built their huge steam-powered "Difference Engine" and are using it to solve mysteries and fight crime.

There are even jokes about cheese.

There are even jokes about cheese.

The narrative is littered with historical quotes and insights into maths and computing theory and gives a great introduction to what computers are about and where they came from. At the back you find get a series of appendices that supply plenty of historical context and by the end you really feel for the characters, in both their real and imagined forms.

Everyone should buy this book. It's just wonderful.

Galileo Book


If you have just got an Intel Galileo you might find this book interesting. It tells you how to get started with the device and gives a good overview of the Arduino technology on which the Galileo is based.

To be honest, if you are experienced with the Arduino you will probably already know the majority of the content, but I reckon that there is  enough Galileo specific content to make it worth the relatively modest asking price.  It's also kind of useful to have all the content in one place. Each feature of the Galileo is well explained and there is also some useful background on the Intel aspects of the device.

Note that this book is written for a Galileo configured as an Arduino based platform and does not cover the use of the device as part of the Microsoft Internet of Things initiative. 

Mijnlieff - hard to say, fun to play

Turns out that this is not a winning position if you are playing with the light tiles....

Turns out that this is not a winning position if you are playing with the light tiles....

Last week in Whitby I bought a little two player game (there are some good game shops in Whitby - and a good sweet shop or two..). Anyway, this weekend we got around to playing it. 

The game is called MijnLeiff, a word my spelling checker doesn't know. Players take it in turns to put tiles down on a board with the aim of making rows of three or more of their own colour. What makes it more interesting is that the piece that you put down dictates where on the board your opponent can make their next move. And with a limited number of different pieces for each player it gets very, very, tactical towards the endgame. 

If you like games which are easy to pick up, quick to play and somewhat strategic, you will like this one.

Steve Jobs Biography


Steve Jobs was not a particularly nice person by all accounts. I’ve never had much time for folks who are horrible to other people and then claim they do this  “just because they are that way”. But he did make a lot of things. I’ve been working my way through his biography over the last few weeks and it is fascinating.

For me the best bits are at the beginning, when he and Steve Wozniak rode the personal computer wave and built a huge company from nothing. Towards the end the story turns into a succession of product meetings and multi-million dollar deals but it is a great read nonetheless.

Linux Format Coding Academy 2013


Computing is currently a bit fashionable, which is nice because there are loads of magazines of all flavours out there. And quite often a magazine will lump together a bunch of articles from previous issues and make a kind of “Greatest Hits” compilation. Linux Format has just done that and produced an edition it calls “Coding Academy 2013”.

It seems a bit expensive at 12.99 for what looks like a magazine, but when you consider that there are no advertisements it starts to look better value. There are introductions to Python, Ruby on Rails, Haskell, Scheme and Lisp along with features on Android development. It is all pretty well written, with examples and links to sample code.

If you have C# skills and are looking to find out the meaning behind some of the other words you hear bandied about when people talk computers you could do a lot worse than take a look. If you are complete beginner you might find the range of information a bit wide, but remember that you only have to learn one of these languages at a time.

I found my copy in the local newsagents, you can buy it online here.

You must meet Henrietta Lacks–in fact you may already have done


Read. This. Book. It is not about computers (at least so far, I’m just past half way through). It is about medicine, race and human nature. Anyone proposing a work of fiction that followed the story in this book would be dismissed as being fanciful and having ideas that were just too far fetched. And yet it is all true.

It tells the story of how the death of one woman led to the establishment of a whole branch of science. It will also tell you how cells work, how they go wrong and how we found out about a lot of this, just because of Henrietta Lacks.

You can track down a copy from here. It is also available for Kindle at a very good price.

Century 21 Comic Strips


As well as the Pacific Rim book (Pacific Rim? Sunday’s Post. You mean you’ve not been to see the movie yet. Shame) I also got a collection of Century 21 comic strips. We used to get TV21 magazine every week, and after dad had finished reading it I was allowed to take a look.

Anhyoo, the Thunderbirds strips were always the best. They were illustrated by Frank Bellamy who was the only one who seemed to be allowed to put his name on the strip. With good cause. I still reckon this was some of the best comic art ever. Don’t believe me? Grab a copy of the book and take a look. There are actually only a couple of Thunderbirds strips in the book, but the other ones are a good bunch too.

And I’ve just found out that there are lots more available too, which could prove expensive…

Thunderbirds are Go


When I was a kid in the sixties (yes I am very old) a must view TV program was Thunderbirds. We first watched it on our old black and white telly which took ages to warm up. It wasn’t until we saw some magazines pictures that we actually found out the colours of the Thunderbird craft. I’ve never really understood why Thunderbird 2 is green, but I digress. The franchise has been round a few times since, with a major revival in the nineties. (At this point I shall gloss over the awful film from 2004).

Anyhoo, one of my birthday presents was a copy of the Hayes Thunderbirds Manual, which gives a detailed breakdown of the International Rescue organisation and their craft. I like this as much now as I would have done nearly fifty years ago. At first I thought it was a reprint of magazine articles of the time, but there is a lot more to it than that. The authors have made use of the wealth of resources gathered by Thunderbirds aficionados over the years and put them together into a very comprehensive and will written exposition of the Thunderbirds universe. There is even an episode guide right at the end of the book. If you have any interest in this fantastic series, then it is well worth a look.

Chris Wooding and the Ketty Jay


If you are looking for a bit of escapist Science Fiction/Fantasy stuff then take a look at Chris Wooding. I’ve just read the first of his Ketty Jay series and it is a rollicking good fun. If you enjoy Harry Harrison, Blake's Seven, Firefly kind of stuff then you’ll like this. A well written take on the “ship of misfits freebooting around falling into danger and adventure” kind of thing with plenty of action and a quite a few laughs.

Harry Harrison on Kindle


Riding on the train down to London today I was delighted to find that I can now get Harry Harrrison books for Kindle. Including the “Stainless Steel Rat” and my personal favourite “The Technicolor Time Machine”. One of the great questions of the age is “Why have no Harry Harrison books been made into films yet?”. His stuff reads like movie scripts in many ways and is just so darned well written and amusing that it really should be on the big screen.

If you like fast moving Sci-Fi with a humorous twist then you should get a one of his books and have a read. I’d recommend “The Stainless Steel Rat” for starters. Great fun.

The Thank You Economy


I’m trying a new thing where I read more books. I’ve worked out that a book on Kindle is less than the price of a couple of packets of cigarettes. If I read a book in two days (unlikely) this will still cost me less than a tobacco habit. And it is much less likely to kill me.

So, today on a whim I downloaded a copy of “The Thank You Economy” after I saw it in Joey deVilla’s blog. I’ve started reading it and it is rather interesting. It makes the point that in a world of connected and savvy consumers, who are going to Tweet, Blog and Facebook any bad customer experiences, a business can’t afford to upset folks in the way that it used to. Furthermore, if you give really good customer experiences you are creating a sales force out of the users of your products.

Apple are brilliant at this. I remember being told an awestruck tale of a dropped (and shattered) iPhone which was ‘Just replaced’ in an Apple Store. This is actually very good business sense. The hardware costs Apple very little, they can write the expense off against tax, and if their delighted customer tells ten people the story and a couple of them go Apple rather than Android then it will have paid for itself.

A couple of thoughts though. Some people seem just born to complain. I’ve stood behind examples of this genre in queue the Post Office, and I’m sure you have too. These folks have presumably got Twitter and Facebook accounts, so I wonder how this policy works with them. With a bit of luck the book will cover this a bit later on.

The other thing I was thinking was how we could apply this to my business, that of education. We work hard at Hull to can give students a great experience, but at the end of the day we also have to give some marks out which will not always be well received. One of the biggest mistakes I’ve ever made was to hand out my teacher assessments after I’d given out the results on a course. Some of the students (who had not actually applied themselves very well and done badly as a consequence) took it upon themselves to deliver payback and the comments were so good they got stuck on the staff room wall for all to enjoy.

I’ve not finished the book, but I’m enjoying reading it. Like most good business books it is full of things that make you say “Well Duh!”, but you might not have actually thought of. It is worth a read, and will certainly do you more good than 40 cigarettes.