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simon collis

musings of an omnivorous biped

CoverSo why does this book exist? Surely there’s no doubt who invented the computer, right? I mean it was Babbage. Well, technically he invented the difference engine, which was a forerunner of the computer I suppose. Hmm. Then was it Turing? Although his work was entirely theoretical. Moore? No, that was microprocessors. Ah wait, I know.

Stop there. Before you say it. The right answer is John Vincent Atanasoff and Clifford E Berry, not – as I’m sure you were about to say – Eckert and Mauchly.

You see, back in the 1970s there was a court case over who actually invented the computer. Read more

Cover image from WikipediaIf you’ve never heard of Sinclair Lewis, perhaps you should. He was, in 1930, the first American to win the Nobel Prize for literature. But that’s not why I picked this up – it was a brief Guardian mention about how this, and other dystopian novels such as Brave New World and 1984 were experiencing a resurgence in popularity.

Now, Brave New World I’ve never read, although I’ve heard the CBS Radio Workshop version, and 1984 I’ve read many times (and I’m waiting for the Peter Cushing version to be released on DVD.) But “It Can’t Happen Here”, I’d never heard about before.

The novel centres around Doremus Jessup, editor of the local paper in Fort Beulah. While the paper isn’t particularly partisan, he does pride himself on standing up for truth, justice, the American Way, etc. Then along comes Berzelius Windrip and Lee Sarason – modelled on Hitler and Goebbels, they could just as easily be Trump and Bannon.

There are major spoilers ahead, and should you wish to read it without the benefit of those spoilers, please look away now. Read more

There are two or three things I thought I knew about the battle of Hastings. Bear with me, because this is half remembered from primary school…

First off, a bunch of French blokes all called Norman – except for their leader, who’s called William – sailed over from France to claim the throne of England. While this was happening, King Harold was off fighting Vikings at Fulford and Stamford Bridge. When he found out what William was up to, he got proper cross and came down with what was left of his army and fought them all at Hastings. Given that a hat trick is difficult in whatever sport you’re playing, he lost the third one when he got an arrow in the eye, meaning that William got to be king, and some clever archer got a pay rise.

Naturally, that’s just me doing a sub-par impression of Philomena Cunk. Of course it didn’t really happen like that, and no, I don’t really think all the French people were called Norman (evidence that just one of them was, though, would please me immensely). But really, quite a lot of them could be, because as this book makes abundantly clear, the fact is we know very little about the Battle of Hastings at all. Read more

Knut Hamsun – Victoria

Posted by simon on 2017/04/29
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I won’t pretend I’m as good a writer as Knut Hamsun. I won’t even pretend I’m even one tenth as good: the man won a Nobel Prize for literature.

But I’d like to leave that aside, and concentrate on the actual book itself. Victoria – published in 1898 – is quite a short book. The translation I read comes across perfectly well, and I always wonder, when reading any translation, whether the translator has chosen the Constance Garnett route of unadorned translation, or chosen to “amend” the prose in the way they see fit.

The plot of the book is, on the surface, simple. Early on it’s established that the humble miller’s son is unworthy of the beautiful Victoria, daughter of the master of the local manor house. He, of course, is madly in love with her. And then, of course, he meets her fiance… Read more

Steve Taylor – Making Time

Posted by simon on 2017/04/24
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I wanted to enjoy this book. I mean, I really did – the premise is really good:

Why time seems to pass at different speeds and how to control it

That’s the tag line on the cover. And it does sound interesting – a quick stroll through the psychological processes that make time seem to shrink or expand. And the first part is exactly that: it postulates a series of laws that govern how human mind perceives time, and then goes into detail with evidence to back up these assertions. Along the way, there’s fascinating detail that explains why children experience time as longer, and how adults feel that the years are passing quickly.

And all of this psychological insight is fascinating, but around chapter six, the “how to control it” part kicks in. Read more

Of course, we’ve all seen Blackadder Goes Forth. The Allied generals used to just throw men at things, not care how many casualties there were, and kept on doing that until… somehow, the Allies won the war. Neillands’ main topic – in fact the whole reason for this book – is to answer the question: if the generals on the Western Front really were so incompetent and didn’t care about casualties, then how did they win the war in the first place?

It’s an interesting question, and he takes 500+ pages to answer it. It’s actually a fascinating read, covering not the what or the how (there are soul-crushing accounts of Passchendaele or the Somme that will haunt you forever, should you choose to read them) but instead asking ‘why’ – why did they choose to attack here, or there, why didn’t they think of x or y or z? Read more

Murder Not ProvenHaving rattled through this in just over – ooh, 31 years – I thought I’d just quickly write about it.

The reason it took me 31 years to read is simple. In 1984 the BBC adapted it into a series. I watched, absolutely fascinated (coming from a family of fans of Agatha Christie, Ruth Rendell, Ngaio Marsh and the ilk, that’s hardly surprising). What amazed me was the “not proven” verdict – that strange halfway house between “well, you might have done something, but they’ve not actually proved there was a murder there in the first place”. The series of four dramatic reconstructions having finished, I took the book on holiday to read. Alas, I left my copy on the boat on the way to France, having read only the first chapter.

So, 31 years… a record for me. Was it worth the wait?

Actually, yes. Read more

I hadn’t read this one when I picked it up in Cash Converters (yes, they sell books as well). It’s hard to find English books in Lisbon, so the two choices in the shop were Dan Brown’s Deception Point and this. Deception Point I read in three days and you can pretty much imagine that it was like his other books, should you choose to, because it is – as with most genre authors, you get the experience you expected. Having finished Dan Brown, I picked this up not really knowing what to expect. I knew that it was about the Spanish Civil War, but not much more than that.

For Whom The Bell Tolls follows Robert Jordan, a university Spanish teacher turned dynamiter for the Communist cause. We’re first introduced to him sizing up a bridge that needs to be blown up as part of a major attack. The inevitability of death figures throughout the book – Jordan initially believes he won’t survive the bridge attack and having accepted that, meets a woman named Maria who had escaped Franco’s forces. (So far I’ve not mentioned anything not on the back cover of my edition of the book – I’m trying to avoid spoilers, if you can believe that’s relevant for a book that’s currently 77 years old.) Read more

615dsjiz3blI found this book in a branch of Cash Converters in Lisbon. Actually, scratch that – I found the 1966 edition in a Cash Converters in Lisbon. However the cover of mine is rather beaten up so I borrowed this image from Amazon. You can go buy that edition from Amazon if you wish – that’s not an affiliate link, by the way, as having moved out of the UK they don’t let me do that any more. But I digress…

The early chapters of the book are fairly easy to follow. This is probably because there’s not a lot of change in quite a lot of time, and it’s fairly easy(ish) to document that for the general mathematically ignorant (such as me). Generally speaking even my high level of mathematical ignorance is capable of coping with zero, and negative numbers and so on.
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BCPL: The Language and Its Compiler

Posted by simon on 2016/05/28
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Bcpl: The Language and Its CompilerBcpl: The Language and Its Compiler by Martin Richards
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Published in 1981, I bought this when I saw it mentioned in an article on compilers, and someone mentioned this as being a model of what a book about a computer language should be.

It’s interesting to see the way in which this book works, and it’s probably a good model for low-level programming. A fascinating insight into a little-used language these days, and still quite readable even if you can’t get your head round BCPL. Modern programmers new to antique languages will find it strangely fascinating: no strings, no classes, no memory management. It’s about as low level as you can get, and yet there’s concepts in there (write once, run anywhere) that are bang up to date in the latest languages.

A fascinating read for anyone seriously interesting in the history of computing.

View all my reviews

/edit: I originally had the name as “BCPL: The Compiler and its Construction”. Doh.