Five Things

Another Sunday means it's time for another list. The last couple of days have seen a ridiculous amount of negativity projected my way, which has certainly taken its toll on my patience, but August was a pretty good month overall. The boy is starting to read more. Projects at the day job are moving forward. The summer heat and humidity has been replaced with some cooler temperatures with intermittent storms. All of these things are positive and each is worthy of a celebration … some more than others, of course. September is shaping up to have a bunch of positive events take place, too, and I'm looking forward to each one of these.

A Week Off … for Training

The last week of September will involve a solid week of Mulesoft training through an all-day intensive course. There will be a great deal of learning and a great deal of Java. Once complete, there will be a closed-book exam where I get to put the skills to use an earn certification for the technology, which will get put to use almost immediately with some upcoming projects at the day job. An added bonus of the training is that I'll need a new computer, and I've managed to convince the day job to provide a 15" MacBook Pro with 32GB RAM, as the 13" MacBook Pro I've been using for the last few years is simply not up to the task of dealing with AnyPoint Studio, the IDE used for Mulesoft development.

A New MacBook

Yes, this was mentioned in the previous point, but it's still something positive to look forward to … even if this is potentially coming a mere couple of weeks before Apple releases the fabled 16" MacBook Pro with the older-style butterfly keyboard, which is the same style that I've enjoyed since 2012. With 32GB of RAM and a dedicated video card, a number of the heat problems that I've been struggling with lately should be drastically minimized. It will also be feasible to do some of the more computationally demanding tasks that colleagues have been asking for help with. If the keyboards on the current 15" devices are as problematic as posts on the web make them out to be, then I'll attach an external keyboard and use the device that way. There's still a whole lot of positive with this hardware acquisition.

Reiko's Birthday

While she doesn't really like birthdays anymore, this annual celebration is a perfect excuse for the boy to make something nice for his mum. Last year involved a great deal of work on my part, as he was just one year old at the time. This year he'll get to help in the kitchen to make something nice. There will also be cards, flowers, and — possibly — something akin to a cake that is not a cake1

Cooler Temperatures

September is here, which means the summer heat is about to give way to a series of typhoons that will cool the country down and bring in the short, two-week autumn period where everybody wants to be outside before five months of winter hit. For me, this entire cycle is a positive as it means that the stupid mosquitoes that bother me at every opportunity will disappear for a short while. This is, of course, one of the many reasons that winter is my favourite season.

And finally …

Reading List Zero

For the vast majority of this year, the reading list has been sitting at about a dozen books to read. Some of these were the result of recommendations from authors of other books, and a couple were even picked up because I strongly disagreed with the author's stance on a subject but wanted to read a coherent argument about why they felt they were right. All in all, it's been a challenging reading year as I've managed to read just one work of fiction and 82 books that cover topics such as modern religion, historic events, sociology, education, child rearing, technology, and even a biography2. Rarely is the list shorter than a three or four books, but I've not had any new recommendations from other readers or authors for a number of months. If I do get down to zero, then I might just use the rest of the year for some science fiction, as the year of "real stuff" has been a bit much at times … particularly when reading something from someone I might slap in the face3.

September has just begun and I plan on making sure it's a positive one.

  1. Reiko doesn't like cake.

  2. Finally got around to reading Walter Isaacson's book on Steve Jobs a few months back. It has been sitting in the Reading List for 4 years.

  3. I read things from people I strongly disagree with, like Milo Yiannopoulos, in order to have a better understanding of their arguments. This allows me to construct better arguments for why their stance on a topic may be incorrect. Not exposing myself to ideas I detest is not exactly the best way to go through life.

Master of None

Over the last year or so I've been investing a great deal of time to improve my knowledge of both Microsoft SQL Server and MySQL. One is the greatest database engine that's ever existed1, and the other is certainly adequate for many tasks with some caveats. As with many things in life, the more we learn about a specific subject, the less we feel we know about that subject. The vast absence of knowledge stretching before me has me wondering whether I'll ever truly know either of these tools well enough to master them.

The chasm by Kevin Carden

In just 11 months I've read 8 SQL Server and 4 MySQL books that have really opened my eyes to how these tools have evolved since I was last working with databases in any meaningful way. Sure, I've used these tools a lot over the last decade, but I've never really had to deep-dive into the subjects in order to provide better support for the engines. With some recent issues at the day job, I feel there is no other option than to absorb as much knowledge in order to take on the role of DBA, as there hasn't been one inside the organization for quite some time. What I've come to learn through this activity is that a lot of what I've previously been taught as "best practice" is now anything but, and it has me second-guessing a lot of the software I've built over the years. This has me wondering if any of the other "best practices" that I've been following are outdated, outmoded, or just plain wrong.

For almost ten years I set aside software development and database work in order to earn a paycheck here in Japan, where my personality type is generally not welcome within a typical Japanese company. A great deal has changed in that time. The question I need to answer now is how to apply this newfound knowledge without essentially scrapping the work that's been done up to now on both personal and professional projects.

  1. in my opinion, anyways

Ridiculous Romulans

In my youth I would not so much read Star Trek books as consume them. Between the ages of eight and twenty-six I managed to read every book that was published, some of them five or six times. Unfortunately, my reading habits changed drastically after moving to Japan. In Canada I would read two or three books per week. In Japan it’s been two or three books per year. I’ve missed reading books and, as a result, have made the conscious decision to get back into reading them … starting right where I left off with Star Trek: Enterprise.

Enterprise - Romulan War

The last book I read was The Good That Men Do which is part of the prelude to the Romulan War as told by Michael A. Marten and Andy Mangels. The Romulans have long been my favourite antagonist in Star Trek, but feel they’ve been hindered by poor writing and sub-optimal plots. Here we have a species that broke away from Vulcan a thousand years before King Arthur was born on Earth to evolve and become the predatory and expansionist species we know from the science fiction books. One would think that with four books focusing on this reclusive adversary, a wonderful tapestry of well-written, carefully laid out plans would play out before our eyes … right?

Sadly I was wrong.

The authors of these four books fall into many of the same traps that other Star Trek authors have in the past. Repetitive plot lines. Stupid levels of luck. Villains who can wipe out billions of people but hesitate to pull the trigger on a main character despite numerous situations that should never have happened in the first place. To make matters worse, there are instances in these books where entire arcs are written and consume hundreds of pages only for the story to shift its focus midway and never again touch the arcs, which leaves us to wonder what happened to the characters that were being written about so carefully.

Was the Columbia lost with all hands?

Did Travis’ parents actually land on the planet that is later featured in A Piece of the Action, or did they actually get shot into a sun?

What of all the young troops who had entire chapters devoted to them where we were forced to sit through incredibly tedious stories of young MACO troops who may or may not have passed away at the hands of the Romulans?

How about all the irrational decisions that Star Fleet made for no bloody reason?

Worse was the seeming stupidity of the Romulans. A species with faster-than-light travel for thousands of years had only 100 or so warbirds? Really? I don’t believe that for a minute. Admiral Valdore, a decorated strategist, didn’t have the insight to see when he was being played as a fool not once, not twice, but eleventy-hundred times by people all around him? A dissident group is able to consistently evade the mighty Tal Shiar for years on end and pick up their seemingly immortal leader regardless of where he might be floating in space?

Nobody notices Tucker’s mouth doesn’t move to match his words?

Every disposable idiot had to be named Styles? I know people didn’t like Styles in The Original Series, but c’mon …

There were so many inconsistent and illogical events that transpired across these four books that I had to, at times, wonder if Trek books were mainly aimed at teenagers with a verbose lexicon unmatched among their peers. Commonplace dictions and turns of phrase would be used for an epoch before some indiscriminate locution would be plucked from a thesaurus for the hell of it, often in ways that seemed forced and ultimately made no sense.

Billions died. Billions. Entire worlds were literally destroyed. The Romulans built the ultimate hacking tool to take over the command and control operations of enemy vessels … but they stopped using it before the declaration of war was even made, resorting to Taliban tactics like cowards rather than the proud warriors they are.

How … unfortunate.

Looking at the books strictly for entertainment value, they did live up to their purpose. I was able to sit back and read these four books over a period of weeks1 and get some fulfilment in my quest for new Trek. I just wish the Romulans had proven to be a more worthy adversary.

With these books out of the way, I’ll be moving on to the last two Enterprise books before picking up some post-Nemesis TNG. Hopefully I’ll be able to read some books by David R. George III, J.M. Dillard, and Keith R.A. DeCandido to clear my mind and delve deep into a well written, well executed story.

Getting Out Of The Loop

One of the many misconceptions that I had as a young adult growing up is that people need to have a keen awareness of the world around them in order to make informed decisions relating to our own well-being. While it is certainly better to be informed of global events as they happen, this can lead to some unfortunate problems for many of us. From being mislead to wasting time, depressing us to killing creativity, being on the up and up of the events happening around the planet leads to more bad than good. This is the line of thinking Rolf Dobelli explores in his new book, The Art of Thinking Clearly1.


For almost every day of my adult life I've made it a habit to keep on top of worldly events by reading the news, be it in printed form or digital. This has allowed me to more or less keep abreast of what the crazy leaders around the world are trying to accomplish in their little fiefdoms, some of which directly affect the people I know. In addition to reading about the political intrigue that is so reminiscent of ages long past, keeping abreast of current technological and sociological trends has provided months of advance notice about an up-and-coming tool or service that could change the way many people accomplish a specific task. Being ignorant of the world has never been an option for me. Rolf Dobelli's book, however, gives me reason to think that I've been going about this all wrong.

Mr. Dobelli starts with some a simple comparison; we've learned over time that eating too much food can lead to problems such as obesity and diabetes, and this is no different with anything else we can consume in excess. News is to the mind what sugar is to the body, and consuming an overabundance of this intangible product can be just as toxic as a diet consisting only of potato chips and soda2.

In the book we're introduced to a number of supporting arguments for the idea of giving up on news. None of these statements will be a surprise for people who have consumed news for several years. We're told that news is misleading and will focus on abstract ideas that are secondary to the actual story. We see that the vast majority of the news that we consume is utterly irrelevant to our lives as very few news articles will contribute to us making a better life decision3. A lot of the news we get today also lacks depth, offering just a surface explanation of a very complex problem. Yes, some news organisations will post "breaking" reports of an event with just a few sentences and a much more thorough, detailed analysis later. The need to be first is as addictive for news companies as it is people leaving comments on a popular website.

Some of the other items Rolf discusses include how news is ultimately toxic to our bodies, how it increases cognitive errors, how it inhibits thinking, and how news ultimately works like a drug; wasting our time, making us passive, and killing our creativity. As someone who has more than a passing interest in psychology, reading this book provided an absolutely fascinating take on this subject. So much so, that I've decided to stop reading news sites that do not offer more than a few paragraphs of content and, even then, I'll only read about topics that I'm most interested to stay abreast of; history, psychology, science, and the universe.

This will not be the first time I've tried to cut back on the amount of news that I consume but, with my recent move away from Twitter, it may be the most successful. Lord knows that I need to get back the positive attitude and ambitions I once had. This decision should help contribute to this goal.

If this sort of subject interests you, you can get the book from Amazon and read more about it from Rolf Dobelli's site.

Still Astounding

One of the many things that I still find absolutely astounding here in Japan is the size of a typical bookstore. By North American standards, even the smallest bookstores in Japan are huge warehouses of paper that serve triple duty, acting as a library and music store in addition to what one might expect while shopping for information or entertainment the old fashioned way. I typically make a bee-line for the technology section as soon as I enter one of these huge stores. While I don't really learn a great deal from these books in terms of code, I am always on the lookout for Japanese books on website design. These books very rarely have anything to do with design, but are chock full of expectations. There's always something interesting to walk away with when perusing these colorful collections.

Going a bit farther, though, I sometimes wonder if there's room on the shelf for something I'd write. Looking at the selection there is one area that is sorely under-served: Windows Phone software development. There are literally dozens of books dedicated to iOS, Android, and even Bada. I've counted a grand total of 4 different books for Windows Phone 7 Series Phones.

I might not own one of these devices, or even have any particular desire to make Windows UI-style applications on a mobile device, but why should this stop anyone from putting pen to paper to bring a decade of .NET development forward1?

Finishing What I've Started

I just finished a book. It felt good. Damn good. This is the first book that I've finished reading in the better part of three years, and it feels like it took three years to get through it. Vernor Vinge's Deepness in the Sky was the novel, and it was as long as it was epic. A work of literature right up there in my list of favorites with Kim Stanley Robinson and David R. George III. Why'd it take so long? Because I've been way too distracted by a great number of things.

That said, with this epic book completed, I'll get to enjoy that other pastime that goes hand-in-hand with reading; reflection.

Re-examining a book and looking over the storyline to fill in the gaps that I had missed is one of the most rewarding aspects that comes with finishing a book. While I may not completely agree with how Mr. Vinge decided to end his story, I can certainly see why he writes so many epic stories. It's also clear to see that the man is as fascinated by the concept of "deep time" as Isaac Asimov and other giants in the field of science fiction.

For the next set of books I plan on grabbing a new Star Trek book and putting it to the test. As for what's after that, a re-read of some of the more complex stories from my past may be in order. Either that, or something completely new.

Any recommendations?

Books, Books, and More Books

How many books have you read over the course of your life? Dozens? Hundreds? Thousands? The number can be staggering if we were to sit down and think about it. I've recently been compiling a list of the various books I've read since making the transition from the enjoyable Mr. Men series and the number, while incomplete, is absolutely staggering. What's more interesting, though, is how I've consumed the majority of these works; more than half have been on a handheld device, with just 48% being in paper form.

Where It All Began

It's probably not hard to believe that back in the early months of 2000 I spent 11 days' salary to pick up a Palm IIIe device. It was supposed to be a better way of keeping track of clients and their data when they'd call me at work. We had books and books of information, none of which was easy to search. The Palm device, though limited with just 2MB of storage, allowed me to keep thousands of records on hand at all times and search for them within seconds1. This was the start of my love for mobile computing, and has strongly influenced almost everything I've programmed since.

Eight months after buying the first Palm, I was struggling with storage constraints2, so went out and bought the next model up; a sleek, black, Palm IIIxe. This unit came with 8MB RAM and was powered by a pair of AAA batteries. Though rated to last a month, I would burn through a fresh pair of alkalines every 9 days. This was further exacerbated when I discovered and started buying Star Trek books in a digital format.

Gone were the days of reading paper books and getting upset when the covers were no longer in perfect condition. Gone were the days of being bored because I had an hour to kill but no books to read3. I could now read anywhere, anytime, day or night. And I did.

The only type of books I've found to be ill suited for this ultra-portable format are educational in nature, with textbooks being the worst in electronic form. Perhaps this is just a mental constraint, though, as I've always used thick books to study subjects. Paper just seems to work better for me, particularly when it comes to language. Studying 日本語 on an iPod Touch, a website, or even an electronic book just doesn't work. It's not due to possible distractions, either.

Digital books still have a long way to go before they replace their paper cousins for most people, but they've been incredibly important to me over the last dozen years. What's more, I never would have been able to bring hundreds of books with me when moving from Ontario to Vancouver, and again to Japan. Bits, however, are incredibly portable.

Now if we could only do something about those painful geographic restrictions4

The Statues That Walked

Easter Island has fascinated millions of people around the world for centuries, and stories of its environmentally destructive inhabitants ravaging every natural resource only to descend into cannibalism are known far and wide as a warning for many societies today that consume far more than the world can realistically sustain. However, despite the long-told stories, were the people living on the tiny Pacific island truly so careless?

The Statues That WalkedI've recently finished an interesting book by Terry Hunt and Carl Lipo that challenge this idea. The Statues That Walked explores the history of Rapa Nui1, an island best known for its 887 stone monuments that stand with their backs to the ocean, staring eternally at the barren land. In the book, Hunt and Lipo take a fresh look at the mounting evidence that shows that rather than being a bunch of ecologically destructive people, the inhabitants of Easter Island were actually very responsible people who persevered through difficult circumstances. Whether the evidence presented in this book will be enough to change the general public's perception of Easter Island, though, remains to be seen.

In 2003 the authors started their archaeological digs on Rapa Nui expecting to find very little. Instead they stumbled upon something that could completely change our understanding of the island's history. With the help of modern dating technologies, they found that the island was first settled by humans around 1200 AD; a full 800 years later than the currently-accepted time frame of 400 AD. So if the date settlers first came to the island was wrong, what else could potentially be incorrect? One of the more interesting items they discovered had to do with the lush palm forests that once covered the land. It's generally accepted that deforestation occurred gradually over time, but Hunt and Lipo argue that it happened almost immediately after the island was settled. What could have caused such a drastic and devastating event so quickly?

Throughout the book we get to learn the answer to this question and many others, with the ubiquitous statues playing an important role. We learn that the early settlers were not ecological destroyers, but careful managers who created ingenious ways to improve the islands' limited agricultural capabilities. We learn that the people reused as much as they could, just as indigenous people all over the world did before colonization destroyed their way of life. We discover that the incredible statues that were thought to require Pyramid-scale human-labor was most likely done in small teams without the help of animals or even a simple wheel.

This is the common thread that is wound throughout each chapter. Unlike many archaeological history books this isn't a dry collection of facts, but an interesting story of discovery and wonder. With every page there was another question, and with every answer there were even more questions. Exactly what one would hope to see in something that both educates and entertains.

I highly recommend this book for anyone who would like to read a better story on the history of Easter Island, as well as those who enjoy seeing just how exciting scientific research can be. The book was written as skillfully as some of the best detective novels out there, and has much more take-away value.

The New Old Pastime

Since moving to Japan, I've set aside one of my favorite pastimes for the sake of other priorities. While this is something that many of us are forced to do as new responsibilities and new situations arise, we shouldn't always have to leave the past in the past. In my case, I had to put reading on hold back in 2007, and it's something that I've tried to restart from time to time. In fact, I can count the number of books I've read in the last four years; something that would have been impossible while living in Canada. This is something I plan on changing this month.

Star Trek BooksSince receiving a Star Trek book for my 8th birthday, I've consumed an average of 80 full-sized novels a year. The majority of these have been in the Science Fiction realm, but a healthy percentage have included some of the great works from around the world. This is something that I sorely miss. It's true that with the explosion of content on the Internet, we can read an incredible amount of work written by thousands of people every week. But it's not the same as reading a single, coherent story. It doesn't fill in that need many of us have to hear stories with our favorite characters overcoming difficult circumstances.

Which is why I've decided to embark on a new project. One that will take years to complete. I'm going to re-read every eBook I've bought in the last 12 years and write a review of each one. Looking at the contents of my eReader, there are 372 Star Trek books, 200-odd other Science Fiction books including the titles written by Kim Stanley Robinson, and 400 other non-technical books. In addition to writing a review on each of these books, I hope to fill in the gaps in my Star Trek library and have the dubious distinction of being one of the many people who have read each and every (published) Trek book.

But why do this? Just for the sake of re-kindling an old pastime? Yes and no. Reading exercises the brain in ways that TV can't. It also gives us the opportunity to boost our vocabulary as language can be very difficult to maintain while living in a foreign nation. In addition to this, I hope that by writing a review of these books, I will have the opportunity to see these stories from a new light. My understanding of the world was very different the first time I read these books, and I've learned quite a bit in the meantime. Will my perception of these books be different, now? Absolutely. And it's this introspection that I look forward to.

The reviews will not be written on this site, but instead on another blog that will be set up for the sole purpose of book reviews. Hopefully, in the next few years, it will have enough content to actually be of value to people looking for new books to read. So, now the tough question: which book should I read first?

Kizuna: Fiction for Japan

Kizuna Postcards MallEver since North-Eastern Japan was devastated in March of this year, people around the world have been coming together to raise funds to help those affected. Five months have passed, billions of yen promised, but there are still thousands in need. This is where the tireless work of 75 volunteers from 11 nations comes in to fill some of the gaps in funding with a new eBook: Kizuna (Fiction for Japan).

Kizuna is an anthology of short fiction spanning a large number of genres. From horror to humor, science fiction to bizarro, human drama to Sherlock Holmes, there's something for everyone. A complete table of contents can be found on the Kizuna Tumblr site, as well as the list of contributors.

The book is available from several Amazon stores, including the UK, Germany, and the US, with more in the works hopefully. All royalties go to the orphans of the Tohoku Tsunami, so the more copies that are sold, the less kids will need to worry in the future when they try to attend university or rebuild their lost homes.