The C++ Standard Library

Rating: 4/4 (A gentle introduction and a must-have reference for all C++ programmers.)

One of the love-hate features of C++ is the standard library. A predominantly large part of the library is the Standard Template Library (STL), which consists of containers, iterators and algorithms. The C++ programmer combines these classes to write his application. Due to the size of the library, the number of classes and functions and their odd eccentricities, a good reference is needed to use it properly. Thankfully, the The C++ Standard Library (A Tutorial and Reference) by Nicolai M. Josuttis is up to the job. This is probably the C++ book which I have used the most in the past few years.

The containers, iterators and algorithms of the STL use template metaprogramming heavily. However, learning this is still quite an uphill task for most programmers. I love this book because it cleanly sidesteps that part of C++, while still being to introduce and provide a compendium of usage of the STL classes. The reader only needs to read and understand the introductory chapters. The rest of the book serves as a reference to lookup when he actually faces a task that needs a container or algorithm. Chapter 6 (Containers) and Chapter 9 (Algorithms) are what I refer to most frequently almost every day. There are very few books which deal with the C++ standard library, thankfully this one is very good! The C++ Standard Libary is a must-have reference for all C++ programmers.

.Net Book Zero

Rating: 4/4 (The perfect introductory C# book for C and C++ programmers!)

I am most comfortable with C and C++, though it is mostly a love-hate relationship. C# is a modern programming language for the .Net platform and I have wanted to try it for sometime. I looked around for some good books and found most C# books to be horribly written. I mean, anyone can teach the keywords of the language and syntax. What one wants from a book is a deeper introduction. I finally found my match in .Net Book Zero by Charles Petzold. Petzold is a technical author who is legendary for his Programming Windows series of books. .Net Book Zero is his book for C and C++ programmers who want to learn C# and .Net.

Call me old fashioned, but I love it when the author says “Close your Visual Studio kid! Let me show you how to write and compile a C# program at the command-line using the C# compiler (csc.exe). Now, let us disassemble the program using the IL Disassembler (ildasm.exe) and examine the IL code the compiler produced for our program.”

I used version 1.1 of this book, which is updated only up to C# 2.0. I did not mind this, so the book was perfect for my needs! Petzold quickly glosses over features which work the same in C# as in C and C++. Instead he focuses on features that are new or work in subtly different ways. I especially loved the depth with which value types (allocated on the stack) and reference types (allocated on the managed heap) are covered all throughout the book. It is this kind of writing that enables a C/C++ programmer to come through this 250+ page book with an in-depth knowledge of how the gears crank underneath C#. The one thing that is missing in this book is a good index. I cannot think of an introductory C# book that is better suited for the C/C++ audience. Highly recommended. Petzold made a mistake sharing the book for free 😉

The book has some spelling mistakes, I have compiled the errata here.

Focus

Rating: 3/4 (If your daily life is being strung tight by too many distractions, Focus might be a handy guide to peek into.)

Focus is the latest book by Leo Babauta, famous for his Zen Habits blog. The book is an edited compilation of his writings at Zen Habits and Mnmlist on the subject of focus. This is the latest in the series of books that seem to recommend single-tasking in our distraction and gadget filled lives. The theme is quite akin to The Shallows by Nicholas Carr, which I read recently and which I feel is quite influential. Focus can be summed up by this Charles Dickens quote:

“He did each single thing as if he did nothing else.”

Focus is well organized, leading from the motivation, to recognizing the distractions, to practical ways to simplify life and finding focus. As you might guess, there is no magic bullet. The solution lies in recognizing the fact that with the finite time and attention we have, there is only so much we can achieve. So, why not throw the rest overboard and concentrate on what is attainable and brings us happiness? This is easier said than done in our consumerist culture that emphasizes ownership of objects and in this digital age where everyone expects one to be available and answerable 24/7 on the Internet. The book leads the reader gently through methods, rituals and habits that can help the process of attaining single-tasking and mindfulness.

If you already read the Zen Habits and Mnmlist blogs, there might be not much takeaway from this book. Though I must say, it is nice to read it all as one purposeful book. The book reads gently, the chapters are short and easy to read, think and apply. The book is freely available and it would not be surprising if it becomes quite popular. If you find your daily life being strung tight by too many distractions, Focus might be a handy book to peek into.

The Jungle Is Neutral

Rating: 3/4 (As the survival story of Chapman and also as a retelling of the Japanese occupation of Malaya in WWII, this book is sure to provide a few days of edge-of-seat reading.)

The Jungle Is Neutral written by F. Spencer Chapman Dso is the fascinating real life story of his 4-year guerrilla war in Japanese occupied Malaya during WWII. This is one of the many hard-to-find books I picked up from the collection of Mrs. Cheng, a retired NUS professor, before she left for China.

Malaya and Singapore were ruled by the British during World War 2. In 1941, While the Allied forces were struggling against the Axis forces in Europe, a massive Japanese offensive tore through South East Asia. Like a tidal wave, Japanese forces ripped through the Malaya (mainland Malaysia of today). The British were a bit complacent that the Japan blitz did not have energy to last through until Singapore, which was a British stronghold. In Singapore, Spencer Chapman Dso and others trained a small force to stay behind the Japanese frontline in Malaya and cause havoc until the British gained it back. However, these plans were wrecked when Japan attacked Singapore by air and grabbed it, driving out the British forces. In the following year, the Japanese tsunami would continue on into Burma (also held by the British), before finally losing steam there, not able to reach India from the East.

After the whole of Malaya and Singapore was lost, Spencer Chapman and a few others re-entered Malaya secretly with ammunition and communication equipment to hide behind the Japanese frontlines, gather information, form resistances and cause havoc. Malaya during the 1940s was composed of the Malay, Chinese, Indians (Tamils and Sikhs) and Sarai (tribals). The Malay and Indians favoured the Japanese forces, the Chinese favoured the British and the Sarai were mostly neutral. Malaya was full of dense tropical jungles, with rubber plantations and small agricultural plots on jungle borders. Most of the people lived in kampongs (small villages), each full of the people of the same race, close to their plantations or fields. Chapman entered Malaya in such an environment, but was befell of bad luck since all his supplies were stolen!

In the initial months of 1942, he and his fellow travellers, Harvey and Sartin learnt how to hide and live off the harsh tropical jungle. At this point in the war, the Japanese were streaming through Malaya setting up bases and supply lines. Chapman and his friends gathered all their ammunition, created time- and trigger-bombs and wreaked small-scale havoc on the Japanese by blowing up train tracks, bridges, and convoy vehicles under the cover of darkness. Their attacks were so effective that the Japanese stopped all travel at night and started a manhunt to find them. Being the few whites left in Malaya, Chapman and his friends could not survive undiscovered for long. To do achieve that they needed the help of the military arm of the Malayan Communist Party that was operating out of the Malaya jungles.

The Malayan Peoples’ Anti-Japanese Army (MPAJA) was the military force of the Malayan Communist Party. The British formally agreed to cooperate with them under the condition that they help fight the Japanese. The MPAJA was a Chinese force, completely filled with Chinese from Malaya and Cantonese from China. With a secret headquarters in Kuala Lumpur, MPAJA guerrilla groups were well organized, spread all over Malaya and were gaining ground with the increasing atrocities of the Japanese forces on Chinese kampongs. Over the next 3 years, Chapman would move from one Chinese guerilla camp to another, training and motivating them, all the while fighting the Japanese and trying to set up communication channels with the British in India and Ceylon (now Sri Lanka). He would discover he was among a few stay behind parties that were left behind to train small forces to get under the Japanese cover and irk them all the while. Chapman’s unbelievable game of cat-and-mouse with the Japanese and the jungle itself forms the meat of the book. Chapman endures long periods of jungle travel, food hunted off the land or offered by kampongs and a spate of illnesses and diseases that wrack his body to the limits of endurance. He would lose a lot of his British and Chinese friends to illnesses and the Japanese. The book vividly describes just how brutal Japanese were during WWII. On mere suspicion of betrayal, they would pillage, rape and butcher entire villages of Chinese in Malaya!

After endless visits and stays at guerrilla camps, Chapman manages to set up radio communication with the British. Two other Britishers, David and Broome are dropped off the coast of Malaya by submarine and they join him. Together with them, he endures another 2 years of hard jungle wars against the Japanese, before the tide starts to turn. The German offensive starts to lose steam in Europe and Russia and the Japanese in Burma and Philippines. Salvaging radio and dynamo parts over several months, Chapman and his friends finally get a radio working and are able to communicate with the British in Ceylon. Coded communications are set up and the British finally are able to start parachuting Colonels and supplies at dropzones set up by Chapman. In Ceylon, British also train and amass troops to finally take back Singapore in an attack named Operation Zipper. After 4 years of near-death living, Chapman is able to jump onto a submarine off the Malaya coast, return to Ceylon and become the fulcrum of information on the Japanese in Malaya. With that information to plan Zipper and the dropping of atom bombs on Japan, the British finally wrest back Malaya.

Not only is this a breathtaking jungle war story, it is also the story of endurance of a human against all odds. Chapman was not just a well trained and clever killing machine, he had varied hobbies too. During his years in the jungle, he observed the culture and languages of the Sarai tribals. He watched birds to kill time in the jungle and took copious notes in his diaries on new birds and fauna he discovered. He learnt how to hunt animals and gather vegetables and live off the jungle. He learnt how to communicate with the Chinese and Malay in their languages. He took detailed maps of his travels all over Malaya. Once, he was captured by the Japanese and was even able to escape from their camp!

Both as a personal story of Chapman and also as an insightful diary of the Japanese occupation of Malaya, the book turns out to be a win-win. The Jungle Is Neutral is guaranteed to give the reader a few days of exciting edge-of-the-seat reading! 🙂

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