The Pizza Bible

The Pizza Bible by Tony Gemignani
$17.54 at Amazon ($12.79 Kindle)

Although I’ve had a pizza stone for years, I’d never actually made a pizza. The whole process just seemed a bit more involved than I was ready for.

This book does a great job of telling you exactly what to do; with no pizza-making experience whatsoever I had no difficulty in following along and making my first pizzas. I did end up making some substitutions (I used the bread flour I had on hand rather than the specific flour types the author recommends, and just used mozzarella cheese instead of multiple types) but the pizzas still turned out great. I also used just one pizza stone, rather than the
book cover two he suggests. I did end up having to buy a few newitems – all the measurements are given in grams, and a digital scale (which this book pushed me into finally buying) and palm scale (that will register down to 0.01 grams) are both helpful if you’re trying to be exact. Aside from the scales, you’ll need at least one pizza stone, a pizza peel, and a stand mixer; any other specialty equipment you lack can be worked around (but I think the straight-edged dough cutter is going to be very worth it). More troublesome was the list of ingredients – semolina and diastatic malt weren’t to be found at my usual grocery store, and I had to order the malt off Amazon – but the basic ingredients weren’t too outlandish or expensive. Just be aware that you may have to do a little bit of hunting around before you can get started.

After an introduction to the tools and ingredients, the first chapter teaches you two make two pizzas over three days. The rest of the book is filled with recipes for various styles of pizza, plus a few other things you can do with pizza dough (such as calzones). It’s a very personal book, with frequent asides from the author about why he does such and such and his experiences at pizza competitions around the world.

My first pizzas weren’t the best I’ve ever had (and certainly weren’t perfect circles!), but they were pretty good. I expect to get a fair bit of use out of this book, and have no trouble recommending it.

Disclosure: I received a free review copy of this book through the Blogging for Books program.

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The Book of CSS3

The Book of CSS3: A Developer’s Guide to the Future of Web Design, 2nd Edition by Peter Gasston
$24.34 at Amazon ($15.41 Kindle)

One of the interesting things about CSS3 is that it’s not a fixed standard; new options are being constantly added. It would even be more accurate to say that there is no CSS3; instead, we have a set of separate modules that are independently updated, giving us a continuously evolving CSS standard. However, CSS3 is a convenient shorthand to mean “those features added after CSS2″ (plus it sounds good in marketing materials) so it will no doubt continue to be used for the next few years.

The Book of CSS3 actually starts out by explaining this, along with a little more detail about how the W3C recommendation process works, so that the reader understands why the book covers what it does and in the order it does. The current usability of the various CSS modules varies widely; some have been implemented across all major browsers for half a decade, while others are still completely experimental. The book starts with features that are universally implemented (such as media queries and selectors) and ends with an overview of features not yet available without vendor prefixes (such as regions and variables). There’s also an appendix showing the current implementation status of each module (although this will, of course, change rapidly) and another of online resources.

If you don’t know CSS yet, this is not the book for you; there’s no explanation of the difference between IDs and classes or how to include a CSS file in an HTML document. Instead, you have an explanation of what the new features are and how to use them. As someone with a reasonable background in CSS, I found the book to be extremely readable and expect it will make great reference material.

The content of this edition is very similar to the previous edition, which I also own. The chapter on Template Layouts was replaced with one on Grid Layouts (Grids being listed as a not-yet-implemented module in the first edition). Two new chapters have been added, one on Values and Sizing and one on Blend Modes, Filter Effects, and Masking. Many of these are not yet available in Internet Explorer, but can be expected to be added in the future.

Overall, a very solid book, one I’d have no problem recommending for a web developer looking to make the move to CSS3.

Disclosure: I received a free review copy of this book.

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Becoming a Better Programmer

Becoming a Better Programmer: A Handbook for People Who Care About Code by Pete Goodliffe
$28.51 at Amazon ($18.35 Kindle)

More than in most professions, being a programmer means constantly learning: new programming languages, new techniques, new software. As with anything, we also get better over time with experience. But how can we actively work to improve our programming skills?

In Becoming a Better Programmer, Pete Goodliffe attempts to answer that question. The book is divided into a number of short chapters, written so that they can be read in any order, with references to related chapters at the end of each one. Each chapter briefly covers one topic, such as the importance of code reuse or version control, writing less code and looking for bugs, error handling, etc. The writing is entertaining – I found myself laughing more than once – and comics about programming are scattered throughout.

For myself, the book wasn’t particularly useful, because everything it covers is stuff that I and my team are already doing, but I think it could be a very helpful resource for novice programmers or newer software companies that haven’t yet figured out best practices in coding. This would make an excellent gift for either a new programmer or someone building a new team of programmers. And as I mentioned, it’s an entertaining read.

Disclosure: I received a free review copy of this book.

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this & Object Prototypes

You Don’t Know JavaScript: this & Object Prototypes by Kyle Simpson
$19.62 at Amazon ($12.49 Kindle)

If there’s one thing that’s particularly frustrating in JavaScript, it’s this. this has an irritating tendency to suddenly refer to something entirely different than you were expecting, at which point everything breaks.

this is confusing because it’s runtime-bound based on the context of the function’s invocation: how it was called, where it was called from, etc. After reading this book, I’m still not always sure how to ensure that this refers to the correct context, but at least now I understand more about WHY it’s being irritating. Still, more space could have been devoted about why this works the way it does, rather than simply giving the list of rules that JavaScript follows to determine the context.

While this was the reason I got this book, it takes up only the first two chapters; the rest is devoted to objects. Objects in JavaScript can also behave in unexpected ways because JavaScript doesn’t really have classes, and inheritance doesn’t work as you would expect it to in an object-oriented language.

I found myself rereading material in this book as I worked through it, but I think that’s a function of the language rather than the writing; JavaScript has just never clicked for me. I deducted a star from my rating because the book didn’t really tell me what I wanted to know about this, seeming to give a quick overview of the rules without much of the logic behind them and then jumping into objects, but otherwise I’d call it a pretty good book.

Disclosure: I received a free review copy of this book.

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My Perfect Pantry

My Perfect Pantry by Geoffrey Zakarian
$22.68 at Amazon ($12.79 Kindle)

CoverIt’s typical for a cookbook to be arranged according to the type of food (breads, dinners, desserts) or the main ingredient (pork, beef, chicken). What I’ve never seen before is a cookbook arranged around pantry ingredients: almonds, beans, raisins!

My Perfect Pantry starts off with a description of foundational items – allspice, cayenne pepper, etc – before moving on to the recipes. For each ingredient, there is a page describing that item, followed by three dishes, all with pictures. Most recipes are just a few steps.

As a novice cook (I’ve been known to moan that I don’t have any food, only things to make food), I’m still in the process of discovering what items need to be in my pantry and how to use them. Generally I’ll flip through a cookbook looking at pictures to see what looks tasty; this one is particularly visual, which makes that easier, and I found a number of recipes that I want to try. No instruction on cooking techniques is given, which is fine – that can be easily found elsewhere – but no particularly unusual equipment is called for, and in reading through the entire book I saw very few recipes that use ingredients I’m not familiar with.

I can tell that this cookbook is going to be very easy to use, and for that I rate it five stars.

Disclosure: I received a free review copy through Blogging for Books.

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Fluent Forever

Fluent Forever: How to Learn any Language Fast and Never Forget It by Gabriel Wyner
$10.39 at Amazon ($9.87 Kindle)

I’ve always considered myself to be one of those people with no talent whatsoever for languages. Despite a year of Spanish in middle school, followed by three more years in high school, I barely remember a word of it and I never could understand spoken Spanish (of course, being hard of hearing contributes to that as well). Since I’m planning a trip to Paris in a few years, though, I decided I really should try learning French.

Fluent Forever isn’t about any particular language; rather, it’s about how to learn languages for maximum retention. The writing is very good, and entertaining; I found it to be a fun read. The book is about two main topics: the science behind how we learn languages, and the tools we can use to take advantage of that knowledge – in particular, spaced repetition systems that help you to spend time on words only when you’re close to forgetting them. I’ve read about these tools before, but this book does a better job than anything else I’ve seen at explaining why and how to use them.

As a child, I had a speech therapist to help me learn to hear and make the different sounds in English that I had trouble with, so the section on learning sounds…er…sounds familiar. The author emphasizes learning the sounds of a language prior to learning words, so that you don’t end up having to learn two entirely different languages (spoken and written). Links are provided to videos showing how the mouth works to create various sounds. Once we “specialize” in one language, we have trouble differentiating between similar sounds in other languages that don’t occur in ours; the author discusses how to learn to hear these “minimal pairs”.

Quite a bit of supplementary material is being made available through the website for the book (some for free, some for sale), but most of it is still under development (in fact, as of this writing – October 5, 2014 – all I see available is the French pronunciation trainer. So I haven’t tried any of this yet, but the prices look reasonable.

Overall, I quite enjoyed reading this book. I haven’t started implementing the suggestions yet – I plan to start learning in January – but they make a lot of sense and I can see how they’ll make learning a language much easier. For anyone who wants to learn how to learn a language, I fully recommend this book.

Disclosure: I received a free review copy of the ebook through the Blogging for Books program.

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What If?: Serious Scientific Answers to Absurd Hypothetical Questions

What If?: Serious Scientific Answers to Absurd Hypothetical Questions by Randall Munroe
$14.40 at Amazon ($9.12 Kindle)

“It makes me happy that an arm of the US government has, in some official capacity, issued an opinion on the subject of firing nuclear missiles at hurricanes.”

Until recently, Randall Munroe was known as the creator of xkcd, the comic with the best disclaimer ever written. (Seriously, if you haven’t read it, go find the comic and look for the warning.) A few years ago, he started taking absurd questions (What if you had a mole of moles? What if everybody pointed a laser pointer at the moon at the same time?) and figuring out scientific answers to them. Half of this book is questions and answers collected from the website; the other half is new questions researched just for the book.

Most sections of the book are pretty short; it could easily be bathroom reading. But it’s just as easy to find a comfortable spot and immerse yourself in the book for a few hours, which is what I’ve been doing since I got it. Each section generally has a bit of research, a bit of science and math, and a bit of humor, and every one is very readable. There are comics scattered throughout the book as well.

Highly recommended for anyone who enjoys science.

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Capital in the Twenty-First Century

Capital in the Twenty-First Century by Thomas Piketty
$23.97 at Amazon ($19.99 on Kindle)

Given my interest in economics, Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the Twenty-First Century has been on my “should read” list since it came out, but it really caught my attention after shooting to the top of Amazon’s bestseller list, with almost everyone who actually read the book giving it a five-star review. Of course, by that time it was sold out and I had to wait for the reprint.

The first thing to realize is that, while it may be aimed at general audiences, this is a research book; it’s heavily endnoted (77 pages of endnotes, not counting the technical appendix on the author’s website) and the writing level is probably close to what you’d find in a graduate text. That said, the writing (at least in the English translation) is very good and quite readable. The book starts off quickly; in the first dozen pages or so, Piketty has introduced his thesis (that inequality tends to increase because return on capital is greater than economic growth as a whole, leading to more concentrated wealth), provided a short history lesson (both political and economic), and dismissed Marxism and communism. The central theme is that, because capital tends to grow faster than the overall economy, the rich will tend to accumulate a larger and larger share of the pie simply by virtue of how quickly their existing money grows.

The book is divided into four parts. Part one discusses income and capital: how they are measured, how the different returns on capital and labor lead to inequality, and the effects of the rate of return on capital vs overall economic growth. Part two is largely a history lesson; we see how the capital/income ratio has changed throughout the world over the past two centuries. Part three, which takes up most of the book, focuses on inequality The Financial Times has published an article claiming some errors in the numbers in chapter 10, which don’t appear to much effect the argument in the book. Finally, part four is what most likely gets people excited, as it contains Piketty’s policy prescriptions: a progressive income tax combined with a global progressive tax on capital (he suggests a range from 0.1% on small estates, up to 2% on capital over five million euros) and a progressive estate tax. The purpose of his proposed capital tax is not to increase the amount of money governments raise in taxes (although it would do that as well, and he advocates using either taxes or inflation to quickly reduce public debt); rather, to prevent the infinite accumulation of capital. I should note that while the book primarily covers Britain, France, and the United States (although the other major economies are included as well) the policy at the end is prescribed for Europe as a whole rather than any individual country.

I will admit, I got a little bored a couple hundred pages in, after which I quit stopping to check the endnotes (many of which are references to the online technical appendix) and just read the main text. This is a history text as much as it is an economics text and will appeal most to those interested in both subjects. This is not an easy read, but it’s an interesting one.

Does it live up to the hype? That I’m not sure of, and I’m not sure I agree with his conclusions, but judged on its own merits I can confidently say that this is a very good book.

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A Fighting Chance

A Fighting Chance by Elizabeth Warren

I don’t usually read a lot of autobiographies, but I’m a fan of Elizabeth Warren and I’ve heard good things about this book, so I decided to give it a try. I figured I’d start on it this weekend and finish it later in the week, but as soon as I got into it, I was hooked. The writing is very good and I found myself laughing out loud at times (such as when the author describes setting her kitchen on fire).

The first few chapters cover the author’s life before she got involved in politics: how she grew up middle class until her father got sick and lost his job; how she earned a debate scholarship and went to college (despite her mother’s desire that she focus on finding a husband), then dropped out of college to get married and have a baby. How she finished her college degree and then a law degree, while raising two kids. Then – in what would eventually lead her to becoming nationally known – how she ended up getting involved in bankruptcy law and research into why people declare bankruptcy. As a bankruptcy expert, she lead the (ultimately unsuccessful) fight to keep the law from being changed to enhance banking profits at the expense of those who would no longer have access to bankruptcy protection.

After her work on bankruptcy, she eventually ended up leading the COP panel, which oversaw TARP (Trouble Assets Relief Program), more commonly known as the bank bailout. The panel unfortunately had no real power – they could take testimony, but could not compel people to testify, nor could they insist on being present when Treasury (which didn’t appear particularly interested in oversight) made the decisions on how to spend the $700 billion that Congress had authorized to bail out the financial system. While the committee’s power was essentially limited to issuing reports, they were able to shine enough light on the sweetheart deals that Treasury cut with the big banks to ensure that later deals were harder on the banks, saving the taxpayers billions of dollars.

In 2007, Warren had proposed the creation of a new government agency specifically to regulate financial products, as no current agency had that as its primary mission. After the economic meltdown, Congress was finally motivated to act, and Warren convinced Barney Frank (who was in charge of the bill in the House) to insist on a strong new agency. Gathering support for the bill took a concerted push by many people, from nonprofits and unions all the way up to the president, with the big banks fighting hard to destroy or disempower the new agency. This was where Scott Brown entered the story, as (having won Teddy Kennedy’s Senate seat) he now had the power to filibuster the bill, which he used to add a $19 billion break for the banks before allowing it to pass. With the change, the Dodd-Frank Act was signed into law.

Unfortunately, while Warren had proposed the agency, fought hard for its creation, and then served as its acting head to get it up and running, the banks (and thus the Republican party) were dead set against her being confirmed as the permanent head of the agency. The president gave in and instead nominated Richard Cordray, whom Elizabeth recommended…at which point Senate Republicans announced that they would block ANY nominee unless the law were changed to take power away from the new Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. Due to a typo in the law (the word section was replaced with the word subsection), the new agency would not have much of its power until a director was confirmed. Cordray was given a recess appointment in January 2012, but was not formally confirmed by the Senate until July 2013.

After losing the chance to run the agency she had created, Prof Warren intended to return to teaching, but was encouraged to run for the Senate instead. Her family was against it; she was over 60 and had never run for political office. Speaking with residents of the state, however, she became convinced that working people needed to have a strong advocate in the Senate and that she could be that person. She started out far behind the popular Scott Brown in the polls, but eventually won 54-46 in a state that strongly shares her values.

Reading this book, sometimes I was laughing (she’s a very good writer), sometimes I was angry (as she describes how those with money and power take advantage of desperate Americans), and sometimes I was excited about what she wants to accomplish, but I was always entertained. I highly recommend this book.

Full disclosure: I made a small contribution to Prof. Warren’s senate campaign.

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Six Amendments: How and Why We Should Change the Constitution

Six Amendments: How and Why We Should Change the Constitution by John Paul Stevens
$14.13 at Amazon ($10.99 Kindle)

In the wake of the unprecedented level of gerrymandering that followed the 2010 elections, as well as the Supreme Court’s gutting of the Voting Rights Act and campaign finance laws, it has become very clear that a constitutional amendment may be required in order to preserve the right to vote in this country. While I have not read Stevens’ previous book, I’ve heard good things about his writing, so I’ve been looking forward to reading his latest offering. It was announced early on that he would take on the second amendment, which guaranteed that the book would be controversial, but I was more interested in the other five amendments he intended to offer. Although Stevens spent nearly 35 years on the high court, he seems to feel that it has taken on excessive power, and here he advocates returning power to the people’s representatives in Congress.

After a quick review of the successful amendments thus far, Stevens proceeds to a discussion of the Supremacy Clause and whether the federal government can compel state officials to enforce federal law, given that the language specifically calls out judges (“and the judges in every state shall be bound thereby”); he recommends adding the words “and other public officials”, with the reasoning that often state officials are in the best position to enforce federal law. Stevens clearly considers this to be a clarification rather than a change, but one which would overturn past rulings of the court.

The second chapter moves on to what I would consider one of the greatest threats to democracy: political gerrymandering. While few people have much good to say about gerrymandering (indeed, Stephens opens with a quote from Antonin Scalia describing severe partisan gerrymanders as incompatible with democratic principles), thus far the courts have declined to step in other than to prevent racial gerrymanders. Oddly enough, Stevens weakens the impact of his argument by using older examples of gerrymandering that left the minority party with fewer seats than they could reasonably expect have gotten based on their share of the vote, while ignoring the more egregious gerrymandering that happened after the 2010 elections and in some cases allowed the Republican party to capture a supermajority of seats in 2012 while getting a minority of the vote. He argues, and I would agree, that having compact districts is more important than making sure each one has exactly the same number of people (while the numbers should be approximately equal, I would argue that a 1% difference in size does far less damage than the….interesting…shapes of today’s congressional districts).

In chapter three, we move on to campaign finance. Congress has always tried to impose limits on political spending in order to avoid corruption. Most recently, the debate has been over whether Congress can limit the aggregate amount that an individual can donate to political campaigns and whether non-human entities (such as corporations and unions) can spend without restriction. So far the most interesting option I’ve seen (although one not mentioned in this book) is to expand the current prohibition on election spending by people who are not US citizens to say that money spent to promote or oppose a candidate may only come from people who could legally vote for or against that candidate. Of course, any one restriction we put into place may be gamed; Stevens suggests an amendment simply stating that Congress and the states may impose reasonable limits on how much candidates and their supporters may spend in election campaigns. Reasonable, of course, would be defined by the appropriate lawmakers.

Moving on, chapter four covers a somewhat more obscure topic: sovereign immunity. Under common law, the king could not be sued without his consent, and the states have assumed this power to themselves (and solidified it with the 11th amendment, which prohibits federal courts from ruling on suits brought against a state by citizens of another state (or another country). More recently (although this isn’t covered in the chapter, and the court has never given it much credence) we’ve seen claims that states can invalidate federal law under the 10th amendment. The proposed amendment for this chapter clarifies that a state and its agencies and officers are subject to the Constitution and to acts of Congress.

In chapter five, we consider the death penalty. Does it fall under the prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment? Should it be decided at the federal level, rather than state by state? Stevens recommends adding the words “such as the death penalty” to the prohibition in the 8th amendment. I found this to be the weakest chapter in that nothing herein will convince anyone not already opposed to the death penalty that a problem exists.

Chapter six, on gun control, is disappointingly short. As expected, Stevens covers the history of judicial rulings on the second amendment, through the 5-4 votes in 2008 and 2010 (District of Columbia v Heller and McDonald v Chicago, respectively) that expanded the right to keep a handgun and limited the right of the government to outlaw handguns. The topic guaranteed that this would be the most controversial chapter in the book, and I had hoped Stevens would make use of that attention by giving an in-depth treatment of how the second amendment has been interpreted throughout the history of the country, but instead the coverage of the historical record is minimal. The purpose of this chapter is primarily to argue that Congress, not the courts, should be charged with deciding on the proper regulation of guns.

As to my rating, I start out by giving the book four stars for entertainment and education. It’s very easy to read, despite what can be somewhat technical subject matter. However, I deduct a star because the book fails on several counts. Primarily, this is intended as a persuasive book, but while Stevens adequately (if only just) demonstrates the existence of each problem, he devotes no space to convincing the reader that his proposed amendment is the optimal way to deal with that problem. In fact, not enough space is devoted to the book in general; it weighs in at only 168 pages, not particularly lengthy given the subject matter, and only 2/3 of that is the actual book, the remainder being taken up by illustrations, the text of the Constitution, etc. Overall, the book is a disappointment, not only because it fails to accomplish its goal of convincing the reader to support Steven’s preferred solutions to the various problems mentioned, but because of the wasted opportunity that a book by a man in his position had to more fully inform the public.

3 stars.

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