October 30, 2008
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Conversing about books

Weblogs are conversations.

Right now, the Gapers Block Book Club in Chicago is reading Sin In The Second City. They link to lots of Web discussion of this book, from Freakonimician Steve Leavitt to the Chicago Daily Defender. All the quotes they extract obey Ebert's rule to respect the reader's time, avoiding silly assertions (“you’ll love this!”) for actual observation.

Leslie Orchard (who has written a number of computer books — including his own take on Javascript Frameworks) takes me to task for complaining about silliness in the books like Dupont’s Practical Prototype and Script.aculo.us.

Even amongst computer scientists there’s still a tradition of leaving room for jelly stains and other oddities. This seems to be the sort of thing Mark acknowledges with dismay. (”It’s not fair to blame Mr. DuPont for the general vice.”)

Is playfulness in literature just a computer science thing? I’m not a chemist; maybe chemists just don’t like being funny in writing, or maybe their jokes are more subtle.

Stefan Tilkov, on the other hand, takes my side.

Leslie disagrees; I don't: I have had the same problem with many books, especially on the new and hip stuff such as Ruby and Rails. To me, too, Kernighan and Ritchie's C Programming Language is the perfect model for a book on a programming language, and most other technical topics, too. And I very much prefer The Ruby Programming Language to The Pickaxe for the same reason.

Orchard draws a distinction between web scientists (who pursue fundamentals) and web masons (who are busy with the next micro-site for their client). This sounds to me like the old distinction between researchers and practitioners. But I think professional practitioners today know (or should know) a bit of computer science — and part of that background is knowing a few computer languages and a bit about computer language theory. It makes sense to me that some books, at least, could allow for that kind of knowledge, the background that we’d expect from anyone who was a computer science major in the last decade or two.

Disclaimer: my last computer class was in 6th grade. I'm old enough that Swarthmore didn’t offer a computer science curriculum. It used to be common for researchers to migrate from other fields, to be pretty much self-taught: in the generation from von Neumann to van Dam, of course, you had no choice. I got in by the back door, so what do I know?