At the Forge - 2010 Book Roundup

Reuven shares his list of favorite Web/database books from the past year.
Podcasts and Screencasts

Screencasts have become an increasingly popular way to deliver tutorials and information. Because everyone can see the speakers' screens, it's possible to follow along as they program, show diagrams and even make mistakes. I've become quite the fan of screencasts and often watch them to better understand a problem or learn a new topic.

Ryan Bates has been producing his excellent, weekly and free “Railscasts” series for several years now. I try to watch every one of them. Particularly as I start to make the transition from Rails 2 to Rails 3, “Railscasts” comes in handy, showing me where I will need to change my code and where I can leave it as is.

The weekly “Rails Envy” podcast is no more, but Gregg Pollack and his colleagues at Envy Labs now are producing a twice-weekly podcast called “Ruby5”, which tries to summarize the latest Ruby and Rails news in less than five minutes. It has more of a newsy feel than “Rails Envy” did, and we no longer get the cheesy (but funny, in my opinion) sound effects and music, but the information is up to date and solid, and it's delivered with a large degree of thought and clarity.

For me, the biggest surprise of the year was my discovery of Bruce Momjian's Webinars (then turned into screencasts/movies) about PostgreSQL. If you work with PostgreSQL, I'm sure you'll get something out of these excellent, carefully written and clearly explained seminars. Momjian works for EnterpriseDB, a PostgreSQL consulting and support company. His screencasts are available free of charge from enterprisedb.com.

Non-Computer Books

I don't spend all of my time reading about computers, although it might seem that way to anyone who sees the stacks of books in my home office. In this space, I mention a few of my favorite non-programming books from the past year, although you'll see that there's still a technical bent to most of them.

Perhaps the most computer-related book in this section is Coders at Work by Peter Siebel, published by Apress. If you read and enjoyed Founders at Work, in which the author interviews the founders of many startups, you likely will enjoy Coders at Work, which interviews many impressive and famous programmers. It's always interesting to hear what some of these programmers have to say and learn from the insights they have gained during their years of software development.

Everyone in my family (including my children) really enjoys cooking. I often have said that one of my reasons for cooking is that it lets me perform science experiments with edible results. For this reason, one of the most important books in our house (often referred to as “The Book”) is the 2nd edition of Harold McGee's On Food and Cooking, a seemingly endless collection of history, facts and interesting tidbits about the science of food and cooking. Well, if McGee's book provides the science, a new book published by O'Reilly, Cooking for Geeks, provides the engineering, offering practical advice, recipes, interviews with cooks and a wealth of techniques you can use right away. (I've already stopped peeling garlic before putting it into the press. Who knew?) If you enjoy cooking, or just want to get into it, I strongly recommend this book.

Another non-computer O'Reilly book is Your Money: The Missing Manual. The Missing Manual series, started by New York Times columnist David Pogue, tries to provide reference guides for users who need a bit of hand-holding, but who aren't going to pay or wait for support. Recently, the Missing Manual series has branched out into non-computer topics, including Your Body (a fascinating introduction to human biology) and the realm of personal finance. Living outside the United States, many aspects of the book weren't relevant to me. However, the general attitude of the book was a welcome one, especially for those of us who aren't as disciplined as we should be when it comes to our money. I wouldn't say that the book changed my life, but it did give me many new ideas about how to get a better handle on my family's finances, which is good for all of us.

Conclusion

Amazon recently announced that it's selling more ebooks than hardcover books, and I can believe it. There is a compelling argument to be made for ebooks, although I prefer the paper versions when I need to concentrate or just for convenience. Regardless of the medium you use to read, let me suggest to readers of this column what I tell my own young children, that the important thing is just to read and keep learning new things all the time. This year's crop of new books, of which I barely scratched the surface here, should provide enough food for thought for at least another year, and probably well beyond that.

Reuven M. Lerner is a longtime Web developer, architect and trainer. He is a PhD candidate in learning sciences at Northwestern University, researching the design and analysis of collaborative on-line communities. Reuven lives with his wife and three children in Modi'in, Israel.

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