my recent reads..

The Elements of Style (Illustrated)

I raved about Robert W. Harris' When Good People Write Bad Sentences a few weeks ago. Since then I saw Jeff Atwood's post making the point that great coders bring many of the same skills used in writing to their programming. Jeff cited the Strunk & White classic, The Elements of Style.

So I thought may be it's time to check it out again. I have vague memories of seeing it back at school; I certainly don't remember studying it in any concerted way.

I was unsurprised to discover that the core of the book remains a concise litany of rules of correct English usage. Exactly the kind of un-engaging treatment that I praised When Good People Write Bad Sentences for avoiding.

This part of Elements of Style is remains a great reference guide; you wouldn't really want to just read it like a book. It makes me wonder why we don't have these style guidelines built into our word processor and editing software. Sure, we have spelling and grammar. But as these books prove so well, the correct words in the right order does not alone make for good style.

I did, however, read the illustrated Fourth Edition from 2000. It has two surprises that take it beyond a simple reference book.

First, the quirky "American Modern" illustrations by Maira Kalman are a delight to browse.
His first thought on getting out of bed—if he had any thought at all–was to get back in again.
His first thought on getting out of bed—if he had any thought at all–was to get back in again.

Second, we have the new chapters added by E.B. White such as "An Approach to Style". These provide much more interesting reading, with a humorous vein in the same class as "When Good People Write Bad Sentences".
Another segment of society that has constructed a language of its own is business.

Its portentious nouns and verbs invest ordinary events with high adventure, executives walk among toner cartidges, caparisoned like knights. We should tolerate them-every person of spirit wants to ride a white horse. The only question is whether business vocabulary is helpful to ordinary prose. [...]

A good many of the special words of business seem designed more to express the user's dreams than to express a precise meaning.

DeGarmo and Lister had a name for that in Peopleware: Management by Hyperbole!

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Code formatting and line continuations with Javascript and CSS

I've had a question up on stackoverflow recently in an attempt to get a nice solution for adding a glyph with CSS to indicate a wrapped line (e.g. in a command line sample).

With a few good suggestions, I had a reasonable solution but it still required a bit of manual markup to prepare the example. Then I saw Pranav Prakash's post about syntaxhighlighter by Alex Gorbatchev.

With a few tweaks (see the stackoverflow question for the details), I'm now able to combine the best of both worlds: great formatting and syntax highlighting with syntaxhighlighter and also line continuation glyphs. Here's an example of the result:

public class HelloWorld {

public static void main (String[] args)


System.out.println("Hello World! But that's not all I have to say. This line is going to go on for a very long time and I'd like to see it wrapped in the display. Note that the line styling clearly indicates a continuation.");



NB: if you have javascript disabled, or reading this through a newsfeed (or if I hit a bug) you may not see the full effect. Here's a screenshot of what should be appearing above:

Now I just need to go back and update the code formatting in all my old posts. Basket!
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Oracle Shell Scripting

I remember seeing Jon Emmons' announcement on the Oracle News Aggregator and I've had it in my "wanted" list on bookjetty for ages.

This week I discovered Jon's Oracle Shell Scripting: Linux and UNIX Programming for Oracle (Oracle In-Focus series) at the NLB and have just enjoyed a good read of it.

I wish more DBAs had read this book. In fact it should be mandatory to get an OCP certification!

Let's face it, most Oracle installations are running on a *nix variant, and you can't be a DBA if you are not comfortable at both the SQL*Plus and shell prompt. To be a good and efficient DBA in my book, I want to see evidence of thinking smart, and repetitive task automation. When I see so-called DBAs who are happy to type the same "select .. from v$.." query every day of their working life, I doubt their brain is switched on, and I find it really, really scary to think they have the sys/system passwords!

They say tool usage is a sure sign of advanced intelligence in birds. And the same applies to all of us in IT. The three examples I look for at an Oracle Database installation are:
  • RMAN
  • Grid Control
  • Shell scripts

If none of these are present, then I tend to presume the real DBA has long left the building. Even if you are using third-party alternatives, do you continue to re-evaluate the Oracle capabilities with each new release?

Jon Emmons' book is of course more focused than this. It perfectly fills a niche, with an approachable, practical and comprehensive coverage of shell scripting from a DBA's perspective.

I can see the ideal audience for this book is people who are reasonable familiar with Oracle administration but are new to shell scripting. This book will rapidly teach you all you need to know on the scripting side (and let you skip alot of stuff you can learn later).

In other words, if you are a DBA who has just been assigned to manage a Unix-based system for the first time in your career: get this book. Forget all the (great) general Linux/Unix/shell scripting books for now. Don't even think the Oracle docs will teach you what you need to know. Oracle Shell Scripting: Linux and UNIX Programming for Oracle (Oracle In-Focus series) is what you need!

If you are coming the other way though - an experienced Linux admin being told that from Monday you also need to manage an Oracle database - I'd say this book probably doesn't have much to teach you. There's much more you'd need to learn about Oracle first (after telling your manager he's crazy), and there are really no scripting tricks in the book that you shouldn't already know. The main benefit you get would probably be a few pages in chapter 6 that cover the tricks of using sqlplus in a shell script - all in one place rather than having to tease it out of the Oracle docs (see this related question on stackoverflow).
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Hot Pink Flying Saucers and Other Clouds

I stumbled upon Hot Pink Flying Saucers and Other Clouds in Kinokuniya last week. This is a mischievous little "gift book" with some 30 utterly amazing pictures of "clouds that look like things". I had to get it, despite the fact that the 3" x 5" format just doesn't do the subject justice. If anything deserved to be a full size coffee table book, this is it!

The book is produced by the Cloud Appreciation Society, and a magical gallery of images is available on their website. It truly reinvigorates your faith in mankind's inner child that organisations such as this exist.

At The Cloud Appreciation Society we love clouds, we’re not ashamed to say it and we’ve had enough of people moaning about them.

The book has made me look afresh at the skies of Singapore. Living here you don't tend to spend a lot of time looking up. The tropical humidity and general lack of turbulence make saturated blanket cloud cover pretty much the norm. We don't have a big weather section in news broadcasts, and no-one really talks about the weather. At night you are lucky to see the glimmer of a dozen stars (half of which turn out to be 747s coming in to land at Changi).

But, no, since picking up "Hot Pink.." I've been drawn to looking up, and I think my prejudices might be misguided. Not everyday, but I realise now there is a little more interesting action going on than I had assumed. I have my camera on standby now, ready to catch any flying saucers, dogs, ducks, or skateboarders that may make an appearance in our skies.

As an aside, you can join the society for just £4.00 + postage. I was really impressed by the playful and transparent disclosure of how membership fees are applied. Certainly the best I've seen for any club or association, short of ploughing through a really dry P&L statement. Makes me want to sign up, simply as a nod to the good job they have done! NB: as of 22-Jun-2009, the image link on the cloud costs page appears to be broken.

PS: shortly after posting this, I discovered another cloud lover here in Singapore. Anonymous_X has been posting cloud pictures on The Clouds Represent My Heart site since August!
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