Tag Archives: Books

Learn SQL and Tell Stories With Your Data

First, let’s get this one thing out of the way. How do you pronounce “SQL.”

Donald Chamberlin, the co-developer of SQL, pronounces it by saying the letter out louse. Ess Cue Ell. However, many computer science teachers prefer “sequel” and in at least one poll, the latte won out. One of the most common implementations of the database language is mySQL, and that piece of software is officially pronounced “My Ess Cue Ell” and not “Mysequel.”

I myself have never once uttered the word “sequel” when referring to this database system. I have also never once uttered either the term “Jiff” or “Giff” in relation to *.gif files. They are, to me, “Gee Eye Eff” files. I admit, however, to calling *.jpg files “Jay pegs” even when they are not *.jpeg.

But I digress. We are here to talk about a new book, on SQL.

The book is Practical SQL: A Beginner’s Guide to Storytelling with Data by the award winning journalist Anthony DeBarros. DeBarros is as much of a writer as he is a database geek, which gives this book a pleasant twist.

The book provides what you need to know to create databases and set up relationships. But don’t get excited, this is not a dating book.

See, a “database” isn’t really a thing, but a collection of things. Normally, at the root of a database is a set of tables, which look like squared off sections of spreadsheets, or highly organized lists, if you lay them out. But then, the different fields (columns) of the tables are related to each other. This is important. Let’s say you have a table of individuals in your club, and each individual has a set of skills they bring to the table. It is a model railroad club, so you’ve got engineers, artificial vegetation experts, landscape sculptors, background and sky painters, and so on. Also, each club member has a known set of days of the week and hours that they are available to meet or to manage some event you are having. Plus, they each have lunch food and drinks preferences for when you order out. Three of the members drive wheelchairs. And so on.

You have a table of dates and times that will be when your club will meet over the next year. You have a list of venues you will meet in. Each venue is associated with a different deli where you order out. Some of the venues are not wheelchair friendly, while some are.

Imagine putting together a big chart that shows all the events, who is going to them, what everyone will eat, what everyone will do, and special needs requirements, for the next ten years.

If that was one single giant structured table, each time a given member was included on a sublist because he or she, there would also be all the information about the person’s address, phone number, email, food preference, skill, etc. etc.

So you don’t do that. Instead, the database is taught to associate the name of each member with that member’s personal file, including all that personal information, in a way that lets you selective ignore or include that information. Then, the database lets you construct new, novel, virtual tables that combine the information in a clever way.

For instance, for an upcoming event, you can have a to-do list that includes which materials to order for a build of a new model, and whether or not the person who helps Joe with the wheelchair thing should be sent a note to remind him to definitely come, and a precise list to send to the corner deli, as well as the phone number of the deli, for lunch, and so on.

Tables, linked together with relationships, which are then mined to make these novel tables which are called queries.

You may need to import data, export data, clean up errors, you may be using a GIS system, creating automatic emails or mail merge documents, and at some point you might even want to analyze the data.

Practical SQL: A Beginner’s Guide to Storytelling with Data tells you all the stuff you need to do in order to carry out these tasks. As is the usual case with No Starch Press books, the code that is used in the book is downloadable.

The book assumes you are using PostgreSQL, which is free (and there are instructions to get it) but all SQL systems are very similar, so that really doesn’t matter too much.

Everybody who works with data should know some SQL. All desktop operating systems (Linux, MacOS, Windows) use this sort of software and it runs about the same way on all of them. Just so you know, you are using SQL now reading this blog, because SQL or something like it lies at the base of pretty much every common way of serving up web pages. Prior to you clicking on the link, these very words were in a database file, along with the name of the post, a link to the graphic used, etc. etc. A bit of PHP code accessed the data from the SQL database and rendered it into HTML, which was then fed to your browser. SQL is one of those things that lies at the root of how we communicate on line, and the basics of how it works and what you can do with it have not changed in a long time. The first relational models go back to 1970. Remember “dbase”? That was an early version, deployed in the early 1980s. By the mid 1980s, everything you can do with modern SQL, to speak of, was implemented.

Enjoy and learn from Practical SQL: A Beginner’s Guide to Storytelling with Data.

Birds of Central America: Review

Belize, Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador, Nicaragua, Costa Rica, and Panama make up Central America. Notice that had I not used the Oxford Comma there, you’d be thinking “Costa Rica and Panama” was a country like Trinidad and Tobago. Or Antigua and Barbuda. Or Bosnia and Herzegovina. Anyway, those countries have about 1261 species of birds, and the newly minted Birds of Central America: Belize, Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador, Nicaragua, Costa Rica, and Panama (Princeton Field Guides) by Andrew Vallely and Dale Dyer covers 1,194 of them (plus 67 probably accidentals). Obviously, many (nearly all) of those birds exist outside that relatively small geographic area, up in to North America and down into South America. But I’ll remind you that there are some 10,000 bird species, so this region has a bird list that represents 10% of that diversity. Nothing to shake a beak at.

This is a classic Peterson/Petrides style guide, with the usual front matter about bird id, geography, habitats, etc. Species draswings are on the left leaf while descriptions and range maps on the left. The drawings do not have Peterson Pointer lines, but there are a lot of drawings to clarify regional versions and life history stages. In fact, the attention to regional variation is a notable and outstanding feature of this file guide.

There is also an extensive bibliography with over 600 references. The book is medium format, not pocket but not huge, and just shy of 600 pages long. Also, last time I clicked through it was on sale. Know somebody going to Central America over winter break? Get this for them as their holiday gift!

Like the Princeton guides tend to be, this is a very nice book, well written, well constructed, and likely to become the standard for that region for the foreseeable future.

Now is your last chance to read Isaac Azimov’s Foundation Trilogy

… before it gets made into a TV show.

There have been, I think, two earlier failed starts for a project that turns what might be the number one interstellar long-history science fiction book written. This project looks like it is going to happen. The producer is Apple, so you will probably have to buy their latest computing device to get permission to watch it. (And therein could lie the plot for a very Azimov-like science fiction story…)

Anyway, you need to read the books before you watch the show, so get started. There is no information available as to when this series will be released. And, despite my snark above, it is not know where it will be shown, but it will be streamed. And, it will be in 10 parts.

The three books in the Foundation Trilogy are:

Foundation
Foundation and Empire
Second Foundation

There is a complex publication history, and there are other stories and books, but that is the central bunch of words.

Alternatively, the Foundation Trilogy plus: The Foundation Trilogy (Foundation, Foundation and Empire, Second Foundation), The Stars, Like Dust; The Naked Sun; I, Robot

These may also be among the most commonly available used books in science fiction, so check your local used book store, if you can still find one. (Hint: On line, the cost of one of these volumes, because of their continued popularity, used, is above $4.00 with shipping, with the shipping price dropping as the volume price increases, to make the actual cost per volume between $8.00 and $12.00. So, don’t bother with used on line.)

When the Uncertainty Principle goes to 11

When the Uncertainty Principle Goes to 11: Or How to Explain Quantum Physics with Heavy Metal is a new book by the amazing Philip Moriarty. You may know Moriarty from the Sixty Symbols Youtube Channel.

You can listen to an interview Mike Haubrich and I conducted with Philip Moriarty here, on Ikonokast. Our conversation wanders widely through the bright halls of education, the dark recesses of of philosophy of science and math(s), the nanotiny, and we even talk about the book a bit.

Moriarty, an experienced and beloved teacher at the University of Nottingham, uses heavy metal to explain some of the most difficult to understand concepts of nano science. Much of this has to do with waves, and when it comes to particle physics, wave are exactly half the story. This idea came to him in part because of what he calls the great overlap in the Venn Diagram of aspiring physicists and intense metal fans. Feedback, rhythm, guitar strings twanging (or not), are both explained by the same theories that help us understand the quantum world, and are touchstones to explaining that world.

I’ve read all the books that do this, that attempt to explain this area of physics, and they are mostly pretty great. When the Uncertainty Principle Goes to 11 does it the best. Is this because it is the most recent? Does Philip Moriarty stand on the shoulders of giants? Or is it because the author has hit on a better way of explaining this material, and thus, owes his greatness to the smallness of his contemporaries? We may never know, but I promise you that When the Uncertainty Principle Goes to 11 is a great way to shoulder your way into the smallness of the smallest worlds.

As you will understand if you check out the Ikonokast interview, Moriarty has taken the risk of using math in this book. The math is straight forward and accompanied by explanation, so you do not have to be a math trained expert to use it and understand. Most importantly, while Moriarty uses music, metal, and other real life things to explain quantum physics, these analogies are more than just analogies. They are examples of similar phenomena on different scales. As Philip told me during the interview, we don’t diffract when we walk walk through a doorway, because the things that happen on nano scales don’t scale up. But wave functions function to pick apart both quantum mechanics and Metallica, so why not explore guitar strings, feedback, and mosh pits together with condensed particle physics?

I strongly recommend this book. Just get it, read it. Also, the illustrations by Pete McPartlan are fun and enlightening. Even if you think you understand quantum physics very well already, and I know most of my readers do, you will learn new ways of thinking or explaining.

Philip Moriarty is a professor of physics, a heavy metal fan, and a keen air-drummer. His research focuses on prodding, pushing, and poking single atoms and molecules; in this nanoscopic world, quantum physics is all. Moriarty has taught physics for more than twenty years and has always been struck by the number of students in his classes who profess a love of metal music, and by the deep connections between heavy metal and quantum mechanics. He’s a father of three — Niamh, Saoirse, and Fiachra – who have patiently endured his off-key attempts to sing along with Rush classics for many years. Unlike his infamous namesake, Moriarty has never been particularly enamored of the binomial theorem.

The Nature and History of Presidential Leadership: A book of olden times.

The timing of Doris Kearns Goodwin’s latest book is perfect.

She is an excellent historian and writer, and you probably know of her as the author of several of the best, or at least very nearly the best, volumes on a range of key subjects in American History. She wrote Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln about Lincoln, Lyndon Johnson and the American Dream: The Most Revealing Portrait of a President and Presidential Power Ever Written about Johnson, No Ordinary Time: Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt: The Home Front in World War II about FDR, and The Bully Pulpit: Theodore Roosevelt and the Golden Age of Journalism about TR.

And now, we have Leadership: In Turbulent Times by Doris Kearns Goodwin.

Are leaders born or made? Where does ambition come from? How does adversity affect the growth of leadership? Does the leader make the times or do the times make the leader?

In Leadership, Goodwin draws upon the four presidents she has studied most closely—Abraham Lincoln, Theodore Roosevelt, Franklin D. Roosevelt, and Lyndon B. Johnson (in civil rights)—to show how they recognized leadership qualities within themselves and were recognized as leaders by others. By looking back to their first entries into public life, we encounter them at a time when their paths were filled with confusion, fear, and hope.

Leadership tells the story of how they all collided with dramatic reversals that disrupted their lives and threatened to shatter forever their ambitions. Nonetheless, they all emerged fitted to confront the contours and dilemmas of their times.

No common pattern describes the trajectory of leadership. Although set apart in background, abilities, and temperament, these men shared a fierce ambition and a deep-seated resilience that enabled them to surmount uncommon hardships. At their best, all four were guided by a sense of moral purpose. At moments of great challenge, they were able to summon their talents to enlarge the opportunities and lives of others.

This seminal work provides an accessible and essential road map for aspiring and established leaders in every field. In today’s polarized world, these stories of authentic leadership in times of apprehension and fracture take on a singular urgency.

John Le Carre’s Smiley Books

This started out as one of those posts I put up pointing to a cheap book on the Kindle. And it still is a post pointing to a cheap book, but then, I have a pitch for you to read John le Carré’s Smiley series (and one other book).

If you have never red John le Carré’s Smiley series, you should. Well, you may or may not like Le Carré’s writing style. He requires work on the part of the reader and can be dense and intense. The stories can be grueling in their detail. But that all makes it very realistic. If you have been keeping up with all the newspaper accounts and findings regarding the Trump-Russian scandal, and if you have been doing so over the last two years, then you are experiencing something much like reading all of Le Carré’s novels in sequence, except a) Le Carré is a better writer than reality and b) reality is much scarier.

The Smiley series happens in the context of the Cold War (as to all of le Carré’s books up until the cold war ends, more or less). You pretty much need to read them in sequence, then, when you are done, watch the various movies and TV series based on them.

I bring this all up now because the seventh book in the series, Smiley’s People: A George Smiley Novel (George Smiley Novels Book 7), is now in Kindle form for cheap.

And, for general reference, John le Carré’s Smiley books in order:

Pre-Karla Trilogy, from the author’s page-turner period:

Call for the Dead: A George Smiley Novel (which is also JlC’s first novel.)

A Murder of Quality: A George Smiley Novel

The Spy Who Came in From the Cold

The Looking Glass War: A George Smiley Novel

Karla Trilogy:

At this point the novels shift in several ways. The dynamic at the British intelligence agency is set up around factions that involve class and ethnic differences (in this case, “ethnic” means one kind of British white guy vs. a different kind of British white guy), and Karla (East German) emerges as the main bad guy. The next three books are a trilogy. You can read them without having read the above, but this is the point where JlC’s writing style changes from something you might really like/not like to something you might really like/not like, so I’d not skip the titles listed above. (I think what happened is, le Carre made it big enough that he was able to tell his editors what to do, instead of the other way round. Sort of like JK Rowling after Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets.)

Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy: A George Smiley Novel

The Honourable Schoolboy

Smiley’s People: A George Smiley Novel

Latter day Smiley novels

The Secret Pilgrim: A Novel

A Legacy of Spies: A Novel

Le Carré wrote several other novels (and continues to do so) but they vary a lot in how much I like them. I won’t discuss them here. But, there is one book I want to mention.

If the Smiley series (above) is one of the greatest stories ever told set in the world of spies and espionage of the 20th century, then it is possible that A Perfect Spy: A Novel, by Johyn le Carré, is one of the single best books in this genre (and beyond). It is shocking, wrenching, fascinating, and, while you read it, you should know that it is autobiographical to a certain extent. It is likely that John Le Carré, who was (with a different name) an officer in the British intelligence agency MI6, would be dead or in prison for life had he committed all the acts of his counterpart in this book. But otherwise it is pretty autobiographical, including the character that is the “perfect spy’s” over the top father. I recommend reading the Smiley series first, then, if you like Le Carré’s writing, read and enjoy A Perfect Spy.

President Obama’s Factfulness and the Death of Expertise

I hear President Obama is reading Factfulness: Ten Reasons We’re Wrong About the World–and Why Things Are Better Than You Think by Hans Rosling.

When asked simple questions about global trends?what percentage of the world’s population live in poverty; why the world’s population is increasing; how many girls finish school?we systematically get the answers wrong. So wrong that a chimpanzee choosing answers at random will consistently outguess teachers, journalists, Nobel laureates, and investment bankers.

In Factfulness, Professor of International Health and global TED phenomenon Hans Rosling, together with his two long-time collaborators, Anna and Ola, offers a radical new explanation of why this happens. They reveal the ten instincts that distort our perspective?from our tendency to divide the world into two camps (usually some version of us and them) to the way we consume media (where fear rules) to how we perceive progress (believing that most things are getting worse).

Our problem is that we don’t know what we don’t know, and even our guesses are informed by unconscious and predictable biases.

It turns out that the world, for all its imperfections, is in a much better state than we might think. That doesn’t mean there aren’t real concerns. But when we worry about everything all the time instead of embracing a worldview based on facts, we can lose our ability to focus on the things that threaten us most.

Meanwhile, Mike Haubrich and I just recorded the next Ikonokast Podcast and our guest recommended The Death of Expertise: The Campaign against Established Knowledge and Why it Matters by Tom Nichols.

Technology and increasing levels of education have exposed people to more information than ever before. These societal gains, however, have also helped fuel a surge in narcissistic and misguided intellectual egalitarianism that has crippled informed debates on any number of issues. Today, everyone knows everything: with only a quick trip through WebMD or Wikipedia, average citizens believe themselves to be on an equal intellectual footing with doctors and diplomats. All voices, even the most ridiculous, demand to be taken with equal seriousness, and any claim to the contrary is dismissed as undemocratic elitism.

Tom Nichols’ The Death of Expertise shows how this rejection of experts has occurred: the openness of the internet, the emergence of a customer satisfaction model in higher education, and the transformation of the news industry into a 24-hour entertainment machine, among other reasons. Paradoxically, the increasingly democratic dissemination of information, rather than producing an educated public, has instead created an army of ill-informed and angry citizens who denounce intellectual achievement. When ordinary citizens believe that no one knows more than anyone else, democratic institutions themselves are in danger of falling either to populism or to technocracy or, in the worst case, a combination of both. An update to the 2017breakout hit, the paperback edition of The Death of Expertise provides a new foreword to cover the alarming exacerbation of these trends in the aftermath of Donald Trump’s election. Judging from events on the ground since it first published, The Death of Expertise issues a warning about the stability and survival of modern democracy in the Information Age that is even more important today.

Carl Hiaasen

I was reminded two days ago of Carl Hiaasen, when I was going trough a pile of books someone was getting rid of, and came across one of his. I always grab whatever Hiaasen books come along free, because I know that at some point, this will happen:

“Huh. That reminds me of something in a Carl Hiaasen book. Have you read any of those?”

“Uh. No. Never heard of him.”

“Well, you should. He writes pretty fun novels, like the one where the Native American guy and the ex-reporter hired a helicopter to drop Guccis and Macy’s gift bags full of poisonous snakes onto the deck of a luxury cruise linger off the Florida coast.”

“Huh.”

“Oh, and there’s one about bass fishing. Double Whammy. It’s the name of a lure. Get it?”

“Uh.”

“Oh never mind, it can’t really be explained, you can’t really describe these books so anyone. Just read it.”

And by this time I’ve dug out one of those Hiaasen novels I’ve been saving to give away, and I shove it into the person’s hands. “Just read this.”

And they do, then they read all the other ones too.

Carl Hiaasen’s first novel that got widely read is Tourist Season. It has been some time since I read it, but roughly, it is about a group of renegades who are living in the everglades (as in IN the everglades) and intent on stopping tourism in Florida, in order to see development roll back. They use interesting techniques.

The rest of Hiaasen’s novels, at least for several in a row, follow a similar approach. The main character is an ex-something. Ex journalist, ex cop, whatever. This individual finds himself embroiled in some sort of scheme or plot, typically involving grungy good guys pitted against truly evil villainous villains. Somewhere in there is a female love interest of the ex-dude.

While most of the characters change from story to story, two stay the same. One is the former governor of Florida, and the other his the Governor’s former body guard named Jim.

So the next two are in line are Double Whammy (the bass fishing one) and Native Tongue which is, obviously, about the blue nose vole.

Hiaasen also wrote several books for kids, with the same style but OK for eight to 12 year olds or so. Both my kids like them. See: Hiaasen 4-Book Trade Paperback Box Set (Chomp, Flush, Hoot, Scat).

The actual order of Carl Hiaasen non kid, fiction, books is as follows:

Not including the Governor of Florida:

Powder Burn, 1981
Trap Line, 1982
A Death in China, 1984

Including the governor of Florida, mostly, though I’ve not read the last three:

Tourist Season, 1986
Double Whammy, 1987
Skin Tight, 1989
Native Tongue, 1991
Strip Tease, 1993
Stormy Weather, 1995
Lucky You, 1997
Sick Puppy, 2000
Basket Case, 2002
Skinny Dip, 2004
Nature Girl, 2006
Star Island, 2010
Bad Monkey, 2013
Skink-No Surrender (2014)
Razor Girl (2016)

Hiaasen is a journalist and commentator long with the Miami Herald. He’s written several non fiction books that include his columns.

Today, of course, I’m reminded of Carl Hiaasen again, for a sad reason: His brother, Rob, was one of those killed in today’s tragic shooting in Maryland.

Garden Insects of North America: Ultimate Guide to Backyard Bugs, New Edition

BOOK NOTE: I interrupt this book review to note that Genius: The Life and Science of Richard Feynman is currently available, again, as a Kindle book, for two bucks. And now returning to our regularly scheduled review.

Garden Insects of North America: The Ultimate Guide to Backyard Bugs is not a pocket field guide. How could it be? There are over a million species of insects and probably a lot more (huge numbers certainly remain to be discovered) and of them, some 100,000 exist in North America. I’m actually not sure how many are represented in this book, but several thousand distributed among some 3,000 illustrations, mostly color photographs. Continue reading Garden Insects of North America: Ultimate Guide to Backyard Bugs, New Edition

How to defeat your own clone, and other book deals

I interrupt this blog post to bring you the following important announcement.

I just noticed that the Fire 7 Tablet with Alexa, 7″ Display, 8 GB, (with Special Offers) is currently available for the price of four cups of coffee at Starbucks, or, just shy of $30. A functional eReader wth benefits of a tablet. I also use them when I need a tablet for high risk use, like as a remote control device for a robot or something. I have no idea how long this will last.

The “special offer” part is the standard Kindle thing where you get an ad, almost always for a book or something, as the sleep screen on the device. Harmless, saves a few bucks, and who doesn’t like seeing an ad for a book?

And now we return to our regularly scheduled post about cheap books: Continue reading How to defeat your own clone, and other book deals

Give The Gift of Nostalgia and Angst

For a holiday gift this year, consider giving a book about politics, since politics this year is so very special.

There are two kinds of books out this year of special interest. There is a plethora of books that expose the evil underpinnings of the white supremacist meritocratic oligarchic patriarchy. And, there is a growing collection of books about the last time America was going under for the third time, and the people of those times. Here is a selection for you to ponder. Continue reading Give The Gift of Nostalgia and Angst