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Duffbert's Random Musings is a blog where I talk about whatever happens to be running through my head at any given moment... I'm Thomas Duff, and you can find out more about me here...

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10/31/2007

Book Review - The Collectors by David Baldacci

Category Book Review
While on our recent cruise, I had to pick up some additional reading material.  I actually finished The Collectors by David Baldacci almost a month ago, but I've been a bit too busy to get around to posting the review.  Bottom line, it was a good conspiracy story with some major con job action going on.

A self-styled group called the Camel Club is out to expose lies and conspiracies in the government.  They get sucked into a major one when the Speaker of the House is murdered by a sniper.  This is followed by the death of the head of the Library of Congress.  Seemingly unrelated deaths, and in fact the second one doesn't even appear to be a murder.  But one member of the club, a librarian at the LoC, isn't quite sure of that.  With a little digging, threads (and threats) are revealed that point to a major security leak of national secrets.  An outsider, a female con artist of incredible talent, joins up with the group in order to pay back a casino owner for an earlier loss in her life, as well as to lend her talents to a greater good.  Although she's not quite sure why she cares about them, and isn't just taking the money and leaving the country...

I've read Baldacci stuff in the past and enjoyed it.  But for whatever reason, he's not on my "oh, he's got a new one out!" list of authors.  I saw this one in paperback at a bookstore on the cruise, and it looked like it had the right tone for mind candy escapism.  I probably would have enjoyed the story a bit more had I already known the characters.  I got the feeling that more development had been done in earlier Camel Club stories, so I wasn't as "in tune" with them as I could have been.  But to kill off a few hours on a plane over the Pacific, it was perfect.  And the ending is such that there's plenty of room to continue the storyline with the con artist and the casino boss who wants her to die a slow and painful death...

10/30/2007

Book Review - Making Things Talk: Practical Methods for Connecting Physical Objects by Tom Igoe

Category Book Review
I don't think I've ever seen a book on "networking" devices be quite this much fun (as well as practical and hands-on)...  Making Things Talk: Practical Methods for Connecting Physical Objects by Tom Igoe.  Once you're done with this book, you'll know more about communication protocols and networking than you thought possible, and you'll know it well.  And Spanky will be able to play pong, too...

Contents:
The Tools; The Simplest Network; A More Complex Network; Look Ma! No Computer; Communicating in (Near) Real Time; Wireless Communication; The Tools; How to Locate (Almost) Anything; Identification; And Another Thing; Where to Get Stuff; Program Listings; Index

Making Things Talk does an outstanding job of blending two different approaches.  Books on communication and networking are common, but they are often dry as dirt and deal in how things work "virtually".  How-to books, like the Make magazines from O'Reilly, show how to build really cool off-beat stuff, but there's only so much background you can get in a single article.  Igoe is able to take the best of both those worlds and create a tutorial on how communications and networking protocols work, as well as how to build stuff that takes advantage of it.  Through projects such as the networked CatCam, the Toxic Chemical Alarm, and my favorite, Monski Pong (a stuffed pong-playing monkey), you learn hardware, software, programming, protocols, troubleshooting, you name it.  You could also make a course from this material, it's that complete.

While you'll do best with a bit of background in hardware and software design skills, he is very clear on what items are needed.  Instead of just saying you need to get a certain capacitor, he tells you the part number as listed on a few different sites.  Couple that with very clear pictures and detailed code listings, and your chances of success are pretty good.  Surprisingly, the detail doesn't come across as handholding, either.  It's just solid information, clearly written for someone who is interested in the subject, with fun outcomes along the way from serial wired communications to wireless, bluetooth, RFID, etc...  

If you're looking to learn theory with hands-on reality, this is it.  

10/29/2007

OSX Tiger vs. Vista vs. Ubuntu Security: A 15 Point Report Card

Category Everything Else
From Virtual Hosting Blog: OSX Tiger vs. Vista vs. Ubuntu Security: a 15 Point Report Card

Here's a nice summary of the high points of security issues related to the three major operating systems out there.  You may disagree with one or more points, but overall it's one of the better comparisons I've seen when it comes to readability...

10/28/2007

Book Review - The Execution Channel by Ken Macleod

Category Book Review
Normally, a near-future sci-fi novel with government propaganda and disinformation is a recipe for success with me.  But in The Execution Channel by Ken Macleod, someone must have left out a critical item to make it all come together.  The two major questions I kept asking were "what's going on" and "why do I care"...

I'm not even sure I can do a decent plot recap.  What seems to be a nuclear explosion occurs at an air force base in England.  This is followed by a number of other terrorist acts which are being spun as a full-fledged attack on the country.  A group that was watching the base for signs of illegal activity is being blamed for the explosion.  But no one is quite sure *who* is to blame, as all the governments are involved in actively feeding "leaks" to bloggers in order to cover up the truth and fuel UFO and conspiracy theories.  Members of the observation group are trying to cut through the media spin and confirm the truth.

That's a weak recap, but it's the best I can do.  The characters seem to be a continuation of some other story, and I was never quite sure who was who in terms of plot and allegiances.  The whole "Execution Channel" just dies on the vine in the story.  For something that is the title of the book, it ultimately never comes into play (as best I can tell).  And the ending is just plain weird...  The term "cop-out" comes to mind.

This could have been a great setting.  The concept of governments driving public opinion using media and internet sites isn't hard to imagine.  The color and settings also seemed to work well.  But unfortunately, the plot was either too sophisticated for me to understand, or it was just plain muddled...

10/28/2007

Book Review - What Got You Here Won't Get You There by Marshall Goldsmith

Category Book Review
It's easy to believe that if you've been successful in some area of life, the process of getting to the next level is just getting better at what got you there.  But Marshall Goldsmith makes the point that doing more of the same won't work in the book What Got You Here Won't Get You There: How Successful People Become Even More Successful.  I'm inclined to agree with him after reading the book...

Contents:
Section 1 - The Trouble with Success: You Are Here; Enough About You; The Success Delusion, or Why We Resist Change
Section 2 - The Twenty Habits That Hold You Back from the Top: The Twenty Habits; The Twenty-First Habit - Goal Obsession
Section 3 - How We Can Change For The Better: Feedback; Apologizing; Telling The World, or Advertising; Listening; Thanking; Following Up; Practicing Feedforward
Section 4 - Pulling Out the Stops: Changing - The Rules; Special Challenges for People in Charge; Coda - You Are Here Now;
Appendix; Index

Successful people got that way because they are highly skilled at something...  decision-making, program design, etc.  But there's quite often one or more habits that hold them back from progressing even further than they might otherwise.  It may be the company executive that can't quite break into the CEO position.  Or perhaps it's the sales person that leads the pack in orders but isn't perceived as a team member.  Goldsmith outlines 20 habits that can keep you from making that next step: winning too much, adding too much value, passing judgment, making destructive comments, starting with "no", "but", or "however", telling the world how smart we are, speaking when angry, negativity, or "Let me explain why that won't work", withholding information, failing to give proper recognition, claiming credit that we don't deserve, making excuses, clinging to the past, playing favorites, refusing to express regret, not listening, failing to express gratitude, punishing the messenger, passing the buck, and an excessive need to be "me".  After going through each of the habits, he then covers what can be done to identify our problem areas and resolve them.  

While reading this, I definitely saw a few of these elements that I need to work on. If I were to couple this with feedback, I'm sure I'd find out even more.  Of course, it's easy to fall into the trap of seeing all the flaws of your colleagues here.  :)  But one statement that Goldsmith said really resonated with me.  Often the things you detest in others are indicators of that same flaw in your own life.  It's like looking in a mirror and hating what you see.  That gem of understanding explains why I have some adverse reactions to certain types of behavior.  It's because I hate it when I do it...

If you're willing to hold up the mirror and take an honest look at yourself, this book will give you solid material for personal improvement.  You'll also do well if you're willing to let others comment on what they see.  It could be exactly what you need to step up to the next level.

10/28/2007

Book Review - Helping Me Help Myself by Beth Lisick

Category Book Review
The premise to this book sounded interesting...  Helping Me Help Myself: One Skeptic, Ten Self-Help Gurus, and a Year on the Brink of the Comfort Zone by Beth Lisick.  Lisick, who isn't exactly living the dream life, decides that she will commit one full year to working on different areas of her existence with the input of many of the best-known self-help names in the business.  Her caustic sense of humor makes for entertaining reading, as well as viewing the juxtaposition of her current situation with where the gurus say she could be.  But I didn't necessarily come away with any deep insights or revelations.

Contents: Introductions - Splits!; January - A Lesson in Cringe-Stifling; February - A Career-Defining Moment; March - Hug It Out; April - Shape Up and Ship Out; May - Place For Everything (Is Not The Basement); June - The Hammer That Rocks The Cradle; July - Party Over Here; August - Stalled Out; September - Creation Theory; October - Add It Up; November - You Are Not Here; December - The Existence of God; Afterword; Acknowledgments

In style, the book reminds me of The Year of Living Biblically.  Lisick and her husband are both freelancers, and a steady income is a luxury neither has seen for a long time.  As such, they seem to be forever mired in money issues, as in what gets paid, what doesn't, what broken item stays broken, etc.  Rather than continuing along this draining path, she sets off to improve her life in one year by living it as self-helpers recommend.  Rather than just read about the programs, she actually shells out money (in many cases, money she doesn't have) to go to seminars and programs run by these individuals.  Along the way, you read about her experiences with people like Steven Covey, Richard Simmons, Jack Canfield, John Gray, and Suze Orman.  When you mix a cynic trying to overcome her normal tendencies with all these "fix your life" people, the blend leads to plenty of funny moments as she chronicles her quest.  Such as when she frantically cleans up each room before taking pictures to send to an organizational expert...  but she won't take pictures of the basement...  :)

Even though it was a fun read, I don't think I got much more out of it than that.  You did get a glimpse of which personalities seemed to be real and committed to their followers, and which ones seemed to be going through the motions for the money.  Much to my surprise, Richard Simmons probably comes out the best in all of these encounters.  From what I could tell however, I don't know that Lisick's life changed all that much, as she was still doing banana jobs half a year later to make ends meet (yes, you need to read the book to figure out what that means).  I was also disappointed in the July/August sequence.  Since this is a "real life" chronicle, I realize she has to write it as it happens (or doesn't happen, as it turned out).  But I felt that somehow I was cheated out of the full "year-long" experiment in those four pages...

For entertainment value, it's definitely worth the read.  It's also worth reading in order to get a first-person look at the self-help movement from someone who isn't completely sold on the concept to start with.  Traversing much beyond that with your expectations might be pushing it, however...

10/28/2007

Product Review - Homedics QRM-400H Therapist Select Quad-Roller Massaging Cushion with Heat

Category Product Review
Image:Duffbert's Random Musings - Product Review - Homedics QRM-400H Therapist Select Quad-Roller Massaging Cushion with Heat


This item from Amazon's Vine program was eagerly awaited by more than just me in our household...  Homedics QRM-400H Therapist Select Quad-Roller Massaging Cushion with Heat.   I'm always up for a good back massage, and my son suffers from back pain.  When it showed up on the doorstep, he had no problems opening up the box, removing the restraining screw, and giving it the first trial run...

Overall, it's a hit with him and myself.  The heat kicks in quickly, and the roller massage does a good job in working out the kinks.  The Shiatsu setting is a bit scary when you first start, so you have to be careful not to overdo it.  It's "vigorous", to put it mildly.  Being that both my son and I are short, the upper back range was adequate for getting into the shoulder blade region.  Depending on the type of chair you're using and how you fit in it, you shouldn't have too many problems getting the positioning down for what might work for you.

My wife was far less enthused with the device.  In fact, her two words to sum it up was "it HURTS!".  It didn't matter whether it was roller or Shiatsu setting, she didn't like it.  So I don't think we'll be fighting her for any time use.  She also insisted I take it out of the living room, as it "was ugly".  Good thing she's not reviewing this item.  :)

The only thing I wish it had was a true on/off button on the remote.  You can power the unit down, but the rollers remain lit up in neon blue whenever the unit is plugged in.  It'd be much less intrusive if you could turn it off with no remaining lights when you weren't using it.  Having to plug it in each time is a bit of a hassle.  It might also cause more of the back pain you're using the device for in the first place!

For the price, I think it's a pretty good deal.  It doesn't compare to full-fledged recliners that have massage built in.  Conversely, it doesn't cost thousands of dollars, either.  For those times when you want to have the kinks kneaded out (and your personal masseuse isn't around), this should fit the bill quite nicely.

10/25/2007

As a developer, what do you wish administrators knew about your job and role?

Category IBM/Lotus
Notes administrators and Notes developers quite often find themselves speaking a different language when it comes to their day-to-day functions.  They're worried about keeping a platform and network up and running, and you're worried about building new apps and supporting existing ones.

If there was one thing you wish administrators knew and understood about your role as a developer, what would it be?

10/22/2007

A warm fuzzy from book reviewing...

Category Everything Else
I received the following email today from a tech book author, and it made my day (yes, it didn't take much given the way the day was going!)...

Hi!

I'm the author of Blogging For Dummies, 2nd Edition, a Wiley book due out in Februry 2008. I'm writing because I would love to use a screenshot of your blog as an example in the book.

The book covers everything from what a blog is, to setting one up, to customizing it with photos and podcasts. The book is a real how-to for all levels of computer users.

I've used a screenshot of your disclosure statement in a section of the book that is concerned with blogging when you have a job. It's a neat blog that I think people will enjoy visiting.

I can't offer renumeration, but you might get some traffic!

If you have questions, please don't hesitate to contact me by email or by phone at <removed>. If you are willing to give your permission, please let me know ASAP so that I can send you the official form required by the publisher.

Many thanks,
Susannah Gardner.

I reviewed her book Buzz Marketing With Blogs for Dummies (very good), as well as the first edition of Blogging for Dummies (by a different author).  I thought it was rather cool that I'll have a link to Duffbert's Random Musings in a book on blogging.

While this isn't the reason I write book reviews, nor do I go out looking for these types of things, it still seems a bit unreal when I break outside my core reader audience.

As Mr. Litton said...  I guess this now makes me the ASW poster child.  :)

10/21/2007

Book Review - Solomon vs. Lord by Paul Levine

Category Book Review
This was another cruise read where I had to find something as the recreational reading material was dwindling quickly...  Solomon vs. Lord by Paul Levine.  I'll admit that having quotes by Harlan Coben and Carl Hiaasen on the cover were a big selling point.  Fortunately, it was a great choice...  funny, wacky, and characters with plenty of personality.

Steve Solomon is a defense lawyer who usually represents clients that are nearly always guilty.  But they *are* entitled to a defense.  Victoria Lord is a new prosecutor, polished and organized, ready to enforce the law of the land.  Lord follows the rules, and Solomon makes his own.  You couldn't find two people who are more opposite than these two.  But after Solomon shows Lord up in court, she finds herself out of a job.  That shouldn't be an issue, as her fiancee is a rich avocado farmer who really wants her to take over the legal duties of a housing development he's selling.  But she *really* wants to practice criminal law, and Solomon thinks she could be quite good at it if she'll only loosen up a bit.  That "loosening" begins when they end up teamed together to defend a rich young widow against a murder charge in the death of her husband.  While trying to build the case and defend her (even though she very well might be guilty), Solomon also comes under attack from the courts who are trying to remove him as guardian of his autistic nephew who he dearly loves.  Lord continues to be drawn into the whirlwind life of Solomon, and has to decide something critical...  does she really want to marry her fiancee, which is a rational and logical sort of love, or does she want to follow her heart, throw caution to the wind, and see what life with Solomon and his nephew might bring?

I loved the characters in this novel.  Solomon is completely irreverent, and does whatever is necessary to find justice (regardless of what the actual law might state).  Lord is struggling with what's safe vs. what's real.  And even as a total jerk, his love for the kid shines through.  The conversations between Solomon and just about anyone else were laugh-out-loud funny.  If you're looking for a South Florida genre novel that evokes memories of Hiaasen and Tim Dorsey, this is a perfect choice.  I'll be checking out the follow-up Solomon vs. Lord novels in short order...

10/21/2007

Book Review - Wicked: The Life and Times of the Wicked Witch of the West by Gregory Maguire

Category Book Review
OK...  probably not the type of book I'd pick up with no external influence.  But on the cruise, one of the shows had a snippet from a musical called Wicked.  I found out a little about what it was based on, and then saw the paperback by the same name...  Wicked: The Life and Times of the Wicked Witch of the West by Gregory Maguire.  As I was running out of reading material, I decided to pick it up and give it a try.  It was better than I expected, and was a unique perspective on the classic movie The Wizard of Oz.

The story revolves around the life of Elphaba, a green child born to parents living in the land of Oz.  Through her childhood and school years, you watch her deal with the problems of being different than everyone else, as well as having a family that is less than functional.  Her college years link her up with others who have the same subversive thoughts and purposes, and it leads her to a life committed to overturning the evil rule of the Wizard.  The book ends at the same place as the movie, with the death of the witch at the hands of Dorothy.  But what you find is that Elphaba's quest for the ruby slippers was really nothing more than an attempt to reclaim a family heirloom, and that she really just wanted to be left alone to live out her life in peace.

I think the reason I enjoyed this as much as I did was the perspective twist.  Rather than looking at Oz as a happy little land with dwarfs running around, you find that it was really a political hotbed of intrigue and repressive actions.  The good guys are actually trying to maintain their royal positions, while the bad guys are the activists who are trying to effect change in society.  And when you finish the book, your entire mental framework of Oz is forever altered.

If I were a Wizard of Oz fan (unbelievably, I've never watched it all the way through), I might have enjoyed it even more.  But even a passing knowledge of the story is enough to make for a few hours of entertainment.

10/20/2007

Book Review - The Minister's Manual 2008 by Lee McGlone

Category Book Review
Even though I'm not a minister or pastor, the title intrigued me...  The Minister's Manual 2008 Edition by Lee McGlone.  It's a collection of sermons, illustrations, and other assorted preaching aids for the year of 2008.  Knowing how my church works, I was curious as to whether these sermons were "guidelines" or actual sermons that could be used for a 30 minute message.  Having read through the material, I think I have a better understanding...

Contents:
Section 1 - General Aids and Resources: Civil Year Calendars for 2008 and 2009; Church and Civic Calendar for 2008; The Revised Common Lectionary for 2008; Four-Year Church Calendar; Forty-Year Easter Calendar; Traditional Wedding Anniversary Identifications; Colors Appropriate for Days and Seasons; Flowers in Season Appropriate for Church Use; Quotable Quotes; Questions of Life and Religion; Biblical Benedictions and Blessings
Section 2 - Lectionary Resources for 2008 - Sermons, Illustrations; Congregational Music, Children's Sermons, Worship Aids
Section 3 - Resources for Preaching: Preaching Biblical Sermons - God's Word for God's World; Preaching the Sermon on the Mount - The Upside-Down Kingdom; Advent and Christmas Preaching - Personalities and Perspectives; Messages for Lent and Easter; Messages for Communion Services; Messages for Funerals and Bereavement; Messages for Evangelism and Missions
Section 4 - A Little Treasury of Sermon Illustrations
Contributors; Index of Contributors; Sermon Title Index; Index of Sermon Text; Index of Prayers; Index of Materials Useful as Children's Stories and Sermons; Index of Materials Useful for Small Groups; Topical Index; How to Use the CD-ROM

I have a number of conflicting thoughts on this collection.  On one hand, there's a lot of good material here.  The sermons are laid out week by week, complete with titles, reference text, illustrations, musical suggestions, children's sermons, and worship aids (suggested prayers).  The teaching is solid, and a congregation would be well-fed if someone were to use this book as a roadmap for sermon topics.  On the other hand, my Protestant, nondenominational background rebels a bit against that same structure.  Using pre-written prayers feels empty and ritualized, and the sermons would/should be expanded beyond the core material here.  Otherwise, I have the feeling that I'm following some scheduled, predefined set of actions that have no personality and feeling.  Yeah, that sounds harsh and isn't the intent of the book, I know.  But I'm more used to a pastor taking a passage and preaching on it over a series of sermons, not just bouncing around from topic to topic.

This could be a very good resource for small groups, however.  The sermons are short enough to allow for basic examination of a passage, and then could be filled in with discussion and application.  If someone was going to try and use the material here verbatim instead of as a starting point, then I don't know that I'd want to call that the entire Sunday experience.  But with group interaction, you could go for quite awhile on each week's subject.

I'd be curious to see how actual pastors would view a book like this.  The Minister's Manual has a long history, so it must be filling *some* role for them.  In the churches I've gone to, this type of sermon selection would be the exception, not the rule.  But I'm sure that other churches and denominations operate differently...

10/20/2007

Book Review - Programming Collective Intelligence by Toby Segaran

Category Book Review
Have you ever wondered how some of those "collective intelligence" sites work?  How Amazon can suggest books that you'll like based on your browsing history?  How a search engine can rank and filter results?  Toby Segaran does a very good job in revealing and teaching those types of algorithms in his book Programming Collective Intelligence: Building Smart Web 2.0 Applications.  While I'm not ready to run out and build my own version of Facebook now, at least I can start to understand how sites like that are designed.

Contents:
Introduction to Collective Intelligence; Making Recommendations; Discovering Groups; Searching and Ranking; Optimization; Document Filtering; Modeling with Decision Trees; Building Price Models; Advanced Classification - Kernel Methods and SVMs; Finding Independent Features; Evolving Intelligence; Algorithm Summary; Third-Party Libraries; Mathematical Formulas; Index

In each of the chapters, Segaran takes a type of capability, be it decision-making or filtering, and shows how a programming language can be used to build that feature.  His examples are all in Python, so it helps if you are already familiar with that language if you want to actually work with the code.  But even if you don't know Python, the examples are clear and detailed enough that you can follow along and get the gist of what's happening.  I personally think that it would help immensely if you had a background in mathematics and statistics.  You can use the code here without having a detailed understanding of math, but I'm sure much of this would be more deeply appreciated if you already know about such things as Tanimoto similarity scores, Euclidean distances, or Pearson coefficients.

From my perspective (a non-Python programmer *without* the math background), I was more interested in understanding the overall picture about things like how ranking systems work or how recommendation engines are structured.  While there was more detail than I needed (or understood), I still felt as if I accomplished my goal.  I have a much greater appreciation for what companies like Google and Amazon have done in building web applications that allow the knowledge and wisdom of groups to be gathered and applied to my own preferences.

Statistical programmers will probably find years of entertainment here.  :)  "Normal" programmers will expand their horizons, too.  

10/20/2007

In a small way, I feel sorry for Steve Ballmer...

Category Microsoft
From Wired: Microsoft Wants 100 Companies, but to What End?

That "sorry" feeling doesn't extend to asinine comments like the one he made at the Web 2.0 Summit:

During his Q&A at the Web 2.0 Summit yesterday he made the ballsy claim that the company is prepared to purchase 20 companies a year, for the next five years.

However juicy the proposition may sound, one should still take heed. One thing Ballmer didn't state in his froth was a solid direction for all these purchases. He merely went on to say that the buys will be "good acquisitions . . .and they're of strategic importance." If we're keeping score, that potentially means that Microsoft is prepared to spend a lot of money over a five year stretch on companies that it hasn't seen yet, that will ultimately provide services or products that it hasn't identified yet.

OK...  So I can say that I'll build 100 Domino applications over the next five years, they'll be good applications, and they'll be of strategic importance.  Measured by what?  And now I'm a prophet who can tell exactly what's coming down the road over the next five years, and that I'll be at the forefront of all of it?  I can see MSFT now...  "It's November 15th!  We still need to buy 5 more companies!  Go find some good acquisitions of strategic importance, quick!"  

This is nothing but a soundbite with no substance behind it at all...

Where I *do* feel sorry for him, is that photographers must put their cameras on auto-shoot so they can capture the worst possible picture of the guy to lead a story.  I mean, would *you* feel good to see a picture like this leading an article about you?

Image:Duffbert's Random Musings - In a small way, I feel sorry for Steve Ballmer...

Guaranteed to give small children (and impressionable adults) nightmares...

10/20/2007

Book Review - The Right Attitude To Rain by Alexander McCall Smith

Category Book Review
After having read the other two Isabel Dalhousie mysteries, I immediately started into The Right Attitude To Rain by Alexander McCall Smith.  Since the characters were still fresh in my mind, I was hooked into seeing how the relationship between Isabel and Jamie might play out.  I wasn't disappointed, as that's the main character plot-line here...

In terms of the mystery angle, Isabel makes the acquaintance of one Tom Bruce.  He's a rich American who is engaged to be married to a woman who comes off as "in it for the money".  Isabel is curious as to why someone as down-to-earth as Bruce (there's a few physical flaws there) can't quite see what everyone else does...  that his fiancee is making eyes at Jamie, and appears to have no real love interest in Bruce.  It gets even more complicated when Bruce confesses that he's really in love with...  Isabel.  Philosophical and ethical questions abound for Isabel, who can't stop digging into his past.  And when it appears that the fiancee might be willing to do more than just "marry" for Bruce's money, Isabel has to determine whether she's intruding or saving a life.

However, if you're into the characters of the Dalhousie series, the real plot-line is whether Jamie and Isabel will quit toying around with each other and finally decide on a relationship instead of a platonic friendship.  Isabel's still hung up on the age difference, but knows that she's denying herself a chance at true love.  But if she tells Jamie how she really feels, could she handle potentially driving him away as a friend?  And will Cat, her niece, react adversely to Isabel dating one of her ex-boyfriends, even though Cat had no interest in him?

Read on to find out...

This is definitely *not* the book to start on if you've never read anything else in the series.  As with the others, the pacing is "relaxed", and the mystery aspect is secondary to the character relationships.  Again, had I not already read the other two and gotten hooked on the characters, this wouldn't have appealed to me.  But given the ending here, I *really* am looking forward to the next installment (whenever that may be).  The ending to Rain leaves open a number of possibilities, and I'm curious to see how the author plays it out.

10/18/2007

Book Review - Friends, Lovers, Chocolate by Alexander McCall Smith

Category Book Review
Following the first book in Alexander McCall Smith's Isabel Dalhousie series, I dug into Friends, Lovers, Chocolate.  The Sunday Philosophy Club prepared me for the pacing and style of the series, so I got into the story-line on this installment more quickly than with Club.  The characters continue to grow and evolve, and I'm enjoying the interplay between them...

Isabel Dalhousie gets into a mystery that is right down her alley as a philosopher...  If someone has a heart transplant, do they take on emotions and memories of the donor?  A person that Isabel runs into at Cat's deli seems to think so, as he's having some frightening dreams and visions that have nothing to do with his pre-transplant life.  The donor's family insisted on anonymity, so it's not as if Isabel can just go over and have a talk with them.  Unless, that is, she can figure out who they are.  But is that ethical and moral?  Where do the rights of the recipient intersect with the rights of the donor's family?

On the character side (as that's always a second major thread in the story), Isabel takes over Cat's role at the deli while Cat goes to Italy for a wedding.  But she brings back an Italian admirer, who Cat is rather ambivalent towards.  But he *does* seem to have taken a liking to Isabel.  Isabel is trying to decide whether having a fling with an Italian lover is something she should do, or whether she should be more responsible and conservative.  On the other hand, she's also becoming more infatuated with Jamie.  She's trying to convince herself that the 14 year age difference (she's older) is too large to overcome, and she should just admire in silence, never sharing her feelings with him.  But Jamie isn't necessarily showing signs of being adverse to the developing feelings, either...

This book did a really good job on the Isabel character, showing her emotions, fears, and doubt.  There was probably more personality interplay than there was in the first book, but by the time I got here, I was interested in what would happen to all of them.  And the tension between her desires versus her expected behavior felt very real as to what people would struggle with in real life.  At least those in proper English society...

This wouldn't be a good place to start the series, but it's a very good follow-up to Club...

10/18/2007

Book Review - The Sunday Philosophy Club by Alexander McCall Smith

Category Book Review
As part of my vacation reading, I decided to take the recommendation of a friend and pick up the Isabel Dalhousie series by Alexander McCall Smith.  I had the advantage of starting with the first of the three books, The Sunday Philosophy Club.  Since I'm writing this after having read all three, I'm probably inclined to give it a bit higher rating than I might have if I were to have written the review immediately afterwards.  The pacing is slow and not focused directly on the main plot line, but the characters grew on me.  By the third installment, I was hooked...

Isabel Dalhousie is a single woman in her early 40s, and she lives in Edinburgh, Scotland.  She witnesses someone falling to their death from the upper balcony of a theater, someone who she doesn't know and has never met.  But she has a problem leaving things like that alone, and she starts to dig a bit to find out if the death was accidental, a suicide, or perhaps even a murder.  Her position as editor of the Review of Applied Ethics journal is indicative of her nature, one that has her debating the merits and moral concerns of everything she says and does.  As she gets deeper into the mystery, some unsettling events have her wondering if she might be a target for someone who could also be responsible for the mysterious death she witnessed.

The other core plotline here, and actually the one that seems to dominate the story, is the relationship between her, her niece Cat, Cat's boyfriend (who Isabel does NOT like), and Jamie (Cat's ex-boyfriend who can't forget her and who Cat wants nothing to do with).  Isabel sees Jamie as perfect for Cat, and also has a great friendship/confidant relationship with him.  But Cat seems to be more drawn to the "bad boy" types, and Isabel wants to break her of that habit...

I suppose being that this is the first book of a series, more time than normal would be spent on character development.  That indeed is the case, but almost to the exclusion of the mystery plot.  From a pure mystery novel view, it's rather slow.  But I did find the characters interesting, enough that I was OK with reading the next two in the series.  Of course, I had also hauled all three in my luggage, so I wasn't going to waste the space.  :)

I can't compare this to Smith's other works prior to the Dalhousie series, as this is my first exposure to his writing.  If I hadn't had the others lined up right after this one, I don't know that I would have continued.  And with the perspective of the whole series, I'm happy with the overall effect.  But if you're looking at this as a one-time read without plans to continue with the rest of the series, you might not be as happy.
 

10/18/2007

OK... so *that* wasn't on the evening agenda (but technology rocks!)

Category Everything Else
So yesterday, I was prepared for a somewhat quiet evening.  But you know the definition of "life"...  that which happens between planning and reality.

Sue came downstairs around 5:30 pm saying that she just had a rapid onset of pain on her right side, complete with nausea and chills.  After 30 minutes, it was getting worse, so we called the doctor.  His instructions were to head to the emergency room post-haste.  Turns out she has a kidney stone of the 4 mm variety.  After some hydration and pain control, we got home around 11:15 pm and I took off to the pharmacy to get the prescriptions filled.  I think I finally turned out the light around 1 am or so, after sending the obligatory "I won't be into work today" email to all the people who were on my calendar.  Fortunately, she's in considerably less pain now, and with any luck all will pass (or has passed, pun somewhat intended) without any additional intervention.  But I'll be around, trying to stay awake and be available for anything she needs (such as the already-early-morning-run to the store for some fluids).

Ah, but now the inner geek takes over...  To diagnose/confirm the problem, they gave her a CAT scan.  I got to stand with the tech as the images came up on the console.  Talk about cool!  I now know my wife inside and out...  literally.  We saw the meds she had been given about 30 minutes prior (at least the ones that hadn't come back up yet).  Then we sliced through layer by layer until the stone showed up...  front to back, side to side, etc.  I think he was having just as much fun showing off as I was asking questions and watching.  In fact, when the doctor came in, he asked if I had a medical background, as I was answering some of his questions on diagnosis and location of the stone like I knew what was going on.  :)

Anyway...  today is going to be one of those days where the craving for a short nap will take over at least one.  I haven't looked in the mirror, but I'm sure the bags under my eyes have bags.  And talking about strange dreams last night...  All hospital-based, of course...

10/16/2007

Farewell, Lotus Advisor?

Category IBM/Lotus
Someone brought the following to my attention on the Lotus Advisor site:

ATTENTION SUBSCRIBERS: Your current subscription to Lotus Advisor has been upgraded to DataBased Advisor -- at no charge. Click here for details. (This publication has been discontinued.) Sign-in now to get more than 10,000 articles, tips and downloads. If you don't yet have subscriber online access, click here for instructions.

I'll be interested to see how this plays out.  It's a shame to lose a Lotus-specific publication, and I'm sure a couple of bloggers would have a bit more inside information on this item...  :)

10/14/2007

Pictures and commentary on our Hawaiian vacation...

Category Everything Else
First off, here are the photos I took...  Yeah, I realize I don't take a lot.  I also have a video from the Flip camcorder I got before I left, but I haven't looked at that one yet.

I did start out with plans to blog the day-by-day vacation for our future review and enjoyment.  But I had absolutely *no* interest in writing or blogging much of anything this trip.  It was more important to veg out, relax, read, and nap.  That's what I needed more than anything, and it was delivered in large quantities.  :)

Some random thoughts and observations...
  • I really didn't know where we were most of the time.  We didn't go with a "must see this" list, as we've never been to Hawaii before.  But after 11 days, all the Hawaiian names start to run together.
  • The iPhone rocks...
  • Some of you might have noticed that I had a number of book reviews I posted yesterday. It might be reasonable to assume that I spent a great deal of time reading.  You'd be correct in that assumption, but wrong in the total number of books I read.  There are still more reviews I need to catch up on.  :)
  • All the native tour guides have a great deal of fun trying to get you to pronounce the name of the Hawaiian state fish.  It's humuhumunukunukuapua'a, also known as the Reef Triggerfish.  I opted for the second version more often than not.
  • They aren't Hawaiian shirts...  they are Aloha shirts.  They are considered standard clothing for men at all levels except for lawyers in front of the court.  Regardless, I won't be trying to wear one in Dublin again.  It doesn't translate culturally.  :)
  • The iPhone takes great pictures and really rocks...
  • Most cruises have non-American crew and staff.  Since Pride of Aloha is strictly cruising Hawaii, the staff and crew is almost entirely American.  While they did a good job and weren't nearly as bad as some veteran cruisers lead you to believe, there *is* a noticeable attitude difference between the two sets of workers.  
  • On the other hand, it's nice to make an observation on American society and have your waiter or bartender know exactly what you mean.
  • Sue and I spent some time in an outrigger canoe.  It's amazing how fast they can go, and that they were used for month-long trips to migrate to Hawaii.
  • It was *wonderful* to not leave the ship and be immediately set upon by taxi drivers, "tour guides", hair braiders, and drug dealers.
  • Security getting into American ports was much tighter than I expected.  We had to show personal ID and cruise ID while still on the bus, then we had to go through a full metal detector and scanner to get onto the pier to enter the ship.  And of course, you have to have your cruise ID scanned when you get on and off the ship.  On the other hand, who knows *what's* in all those shipping containers within 100 yards of the ship?
  • I thought celebrating our 25th anniversary would put us in a unique group.  Nope.  There were plenty of geriatrics on the ship, and I'm not sure 25 years would have gotten us into the 50th percentile.
  • Did I mention that I really liked my iPhone?
  • Visiting Pearl Harbor is a sobering experience.  You can "feel the ghosts" as you imagine the wave of Japanese fighter planes coming over the hills...  walking on the deck of the USS Missouri...  peering down into the underwater grave of over 1000 people on the USS Arizona.
  • As usual, the white man destroyed yet another beautiful culture.  
  • We saw the hotel where Elvis filmed Blue Hawaii.  He's still quite the personality there.  What's strange about the hotel is that it was decimated in 1992 by a hurricane.  It was abandoned at that time, but nobody has vandalized it.  Windows are broken out from the hurricane, as well as roofing that's no longer present.  But other than that, it still stands.  Rather eerie...

If/when we go to Hawaii again, we'll probably pick an island, fly there, rent a car, and stay in one location.  The cruise was a nice way to get the "buffet-line" view of the islands, but it was hard to get into much depth or detail.

But even though we didn't do as much as we could have, it was just what the doctor ordered.  Now I just have to get out of the habit of afternoon naps.  :)

10/13/2007

Book Review - Keep It Real by Bill Bryan

Category Book Review
My lead-off vacation reading when I got on the plane was a library book titled Keep It Real by Bill Bryan.  With Dave Barry's quote on the front "If you like to laugh, and you hate reality TV, you will love this wonderfully, viciously hilarious book", how could I not pick it up?  Good choice too, as it delivered plenty of laughs to keep me distracted during a very long flight...

Ted Collins has gone from the heights of journalistic fame to the bottom of the TV barrel...  from a Pulitzer for investigative journalism to being a producer for a reality TV show called "The Mogul".  And yes, you can assume it's a rip-off of The Apprentice, right down to the Donald Trump catch-phrase.  The only reason Ted keeps going is that his ex-wife has custody of their daughter, and he desperately wants to get more than court-supervised visits with his child.  But legal issues and mental breakdowns will do that to you.  During a visit with his daughter (at his ex-wife's mansion), he overhears an argument between a rap star and his latest "date".  When the "date" goes missing, it becomes front-page news, with Ted holding a few cards as to what may have happened to her.  This chance to get back into real reporting coincides with his promotion to executive producer of The Mogul.  He decides to blend the two situations by having the rap star appear in an episode of the show so that he can spend some time snooping around to find physical evidence of the suspected murder.  Unfortunately, "control" is an illusion, and network egos keep changing the plans faster than Ted can devise them.  And with each change in direction, the likely suspect(s) keep shifting in and out of focus...

This was truly a fun read.  Ted has an incredibly active imagination, and his dialogue is acid-sharp.  His job is made up of completely dysfunctional coworkers and executives, and the daily "eat or be eaten" mentality is sort of what you'd expect in the pressure-filled world of network ratings.  But underneath all the laughs and sarcasm, there's a real caring person who will literally kill for his daughter, and who wants to save her from the uncaring materialistic world in which she's being raised.  The twists towards the end of the book kept me guessing on how it would all turn out, and I had more fun reading this than many other recreational reads of late.

If you're a fan of Dave Barry or Carl Hiaasen, Bill Bryan's Keep It Real should make you feel right at home.

10/13/2007

Book Review - Gods Behaving Badly by Marie Phillips

Category Book Review
As part of Amazon's Vine review program, I received an advance reader's copy of the novel Gods Behaving Badly by Marie Phillips.  The premise was enough to interest me, and the author did an excellent job on her first novel.  The off-beat situations, dialogue, and humor had me ignoring some other things I *should* have been doing, as I didn't want to put the book down.

The gods of Olympus are no longer lofty immortals living in splendor and luxury.  Instead, they're living in London, stuck in a run-down house that is aging much faster than they are.  They have real jobs in the mortal world, such as dog-walker (Artemis), bartender (Dionysus), war coordinator (Ares), and a 1-900 phone sex operator (of course, Aphrodite).  Their problem is that their powers are slowly running dry, and they're not sure whether they'll find a solution before the world comes to a crashing halt.  As in, who will make sure the sun continues to rise if not for Apollo?  Against a very strict set of rules, they hire a mortal (Alice) to keep the pig-sty of a house clean.  But this goes awry as Apollo, struck by a love arrow from Eros (a plot by his mother Aphrodite), falls madly in love with Alice and attempts to seduce her.  Alas, the attempt is rebuffed.  In a snit, he has her killed by a lightening bolt from Zeus (the crazy god locked up in the attic).  This greatly upsets the (unspoken) love of her life, Neil.  Apollo attempts to apologize (once he figures out the meaning of the word), but the display of his godly power fails when removing the sun saps the rest of his strength and puts him into a coma.  Obviously, without a sun, things are quickly becoming problematic around the city.  Artemis has to turn Neil into a hero in order to venture into the underworld, win back the life of Alice, *and* try to reverse the whole sun debacle before everyone on earth dies.  Just another day in the godly realm...  :)

The initial premise of Olympian gods trying to survive on earth disguised as mortals was unique, and it allowed for some great comedy.  All the attitudes and attributes of each god was played to the fullest, and Phillips captured it to perfection.  Apollo's vanity and arrogance, Artemis' hunting and strategy, Aphrodite's cavalier use of sex to get her way...  All funny, and all spun out to their logical uses in the real world.  It reminded me of a dysfunctional fiction/fantasy reality show, only one that I could laugh at.  Guess gods are better material for me than humans in that context.  :)

I hope this isn't/won't be Phillips' only novel.  Her sense of comedic timing in both context and conversation is excellent, and I wouldn't hesitate to recommend this book to most of my friends (once I warned them that the language and mental images *can* be rather explicit at times).  

10/13/2007

Book Review - The Ancient Path by Joshua M. Jost

Category Book Review
One of the problems I have with my reading pace is that I don't allow my imagination to wander much to create "color" in a narrative.  That's the main reason I enjoyed The Ancient Path by Joshua M. Jost so much.  It forced me to slow down and see familiar Bible stories and passages in a new light, with color, character, and meaning injected into them.

Contents:
In The Beginning; Forbidden Fruit; The Father; Pulled From The Water; Land Of Hope; City Of Peace; Prophets Of Wisdom And The City Of Confusion; The Son

Ancient Path is a reflective work by the author, who traces his own journey and struggle with age-old questions.  Starting with Genesis and moving through the time of Christ, Jost paints a picture of how God was working from the very beginning to reveal his Son.  He does so by taking events and personalities, such as Moses and Abraham, and interweaves their story with his questions and reflections of God's grace and teaching.  The style was such that I found myself slowing down, entering the scene that was being narrated, and thinking about the implications of what was just described.  And if an author can get me to do that, it's saying something...

You could almost look at each chapter as being a devotional that would take you about 15 to 30 minutes to read, but that would give hours of material for thought and consideration.  I came away from the book feeling refreshed and humbled, and I'm honored that I had the chance to read and review the book.

10/13/2007

Book Review - Longinus: Book I Of The Merlin Factor by Steven Maines

Category Book Review
This is a book I've had around for awhile, but was waiting for some extended reading time before I dug in.  The vacation cruise provided the perfect opportunity, and so I started Longinus: Book I Of The Merlin Factor by Steven Maines.  While I definitely don't agree with the theology espoused in the novel, the writing and story-line was well done.

Longinus was a Roman Centurion at the time of Christ's cruxifiction.  He was the one who used his spear to stab Jesus in the side to ensure his death.  But that act forever changed his life, as the blood of Christ transformed the spear into a mystical weapon sought by both governmental and spiritual leaders.  The story traces Longinus as he becomes a fugitive from Rome, hooks up with Celtic Druids, and becomes a master of truth as he learns to listen to the voice and teachings of mystics and teachers that guide him in his newfound spiritual quest.  

From a religious perspective, this couldn't be further away from what I believe.  It's a mix of Gnostic teachings and Druid magic, and reduces the figure of Christ to just another wise teacher among many. But I wasn't reading it from that angle (i.e., what truths can I apply to my own life).  As a story that captures the color and flavor of the Roman empire in the first century, it works well.  I felt immersed in the culture, and the characters seemed to ring true to the time period.  In addition, the struggle of Longinus to change his world view based on his new reality was compelling.  I found myself caring about all the major players in the story, and there was no problem in keeping me engaged in the story, theology issues notwithstanding...

Those looking for alternative spiritual truths will likely get far more out of the book than I did.  But even if that's not your main reason for reading, the story of Longinus should do a good job of keeping you entertained.

10/12/2007

Book Review - An Architectural Guidebook To Portland, Second Edition by Bart King

Category Book Review
When I accepted the offer to receive and review a copy of the book An Architectural Guidebook To Portland, Second Edition by Bart King, I'll admit I wasn't waiting with anticipation for it to show up.  In fact, had his request not had the line "No pressure! The book is particularly helpful as a cure for insomnia, however.", I probably would have let it pass.  But much to my surprise, this was far more fun to read than I expected, and I'm glad I had the chance to see it.

Contents:
Introduction; Downtown; Cultural District, Government Center; Yamhill; Old Town - Chinatown; The Pearl; Northwest; Southwest; Southeast; Northeast; Downtown Bridges; Glossary; Photo Credits; Bibliography; Index

Portland has a very rich and colorful history from the early days as "Stumptown" to the present.  And going into old historic sites fascinate me, as I can often "feel the past" when I imagine what things must have been like back then.  But reading a book where someone waxes eloquent about the finer points of Romanesque versus Richardsonian Romanesque doesn't do a thing for me.  Fortunately, this book is *far* from that.  King divides up the city into some basic areas, and then covers approximately 20 to 30 buildings of note in each, ranging from the late 1800's to buildings that are due to start in the upcoming year.  The first difference I noticed is that his choices are not all "excellent" examples of some style or architect.  In fact, a number of his choices were voted "ugliest building in Portland" by various panels.  You may not necessarily agree with the opinions, but he's not afraid to point out both thoroughbreds and nags.  And he does it with a sharp and cutting sense of humor.  Each selection usually has a short inset or sidebar that contains an interesting factoid that brings the building's history to life.  Even the glossary is worth reading (yes, I was *that* hooked!).  My favorite was probably the definition of portico...  "A covered porch.  There are many different styles.  You do not care."  It's not often I laugh out loud when reading.  Especially so when architecture is the subject matter.  This was a definition exception.

"Serious" students of architecture might feel that King doesn't treat the subject matter with the reverence that it deserves.  To that I say, get a life.  But for the average person who goes to work in downtown Portland every day without noticing the rich history around them, this book is a true gem.  

10/12/2007

Book Review - Now You See Him by Eli Gottlieb

Category Book Review
One of the books I took on my vacation was an advance reader's copy of the novel Now You See Him by Eli Gottlieb.  It's a rather dark novel that spends more time on introspection and relationships than action, but it was something that kept me turning the pages to see where it was going to end up.

Rob Castor was a writer who reached a niche with his bizarre writings and stories.  But after moving to New York, he developed a severe case of writers block that became more entrenched the longer he tried to work past it.  At the same time, his wife was discovered as a new writing talent, and the opposing directions of their careers added even more strain to the relationship.  She met another man and moved out, and that pushed Castor over the edge.  He murdered her, went back to his old hometown, and committed suicide after meeting up with his old friends.  Nick Framingham, Castor's "best" friend, is obsessed with the suicide, and spends an ever-increasing amount of time reflecting on his childhood relationship with Castor.  This puts a strain on *his* marriage, as Castor's sister was a former lover and is reaching out to Nick again.  As Nick continues to dig into those relationships, he uncovers some truths that completely rewrite his past and present.

In terms of action-filled suspense, this book is rather slow.  The murder and suicide is known up front, and the story is told from Nick's perspective.  The suspense is in trying to figure out why Nick's marriage is going downhill, why Nick spends so much time within himself, and why Castor and his family played such a crucial role in his early years.  If not for the picturesque way that Gottlieb weaves the words and sentences together, I would have probably struggled with the pacing of the plot.  But it was a treat to watch a good writer spin out the story-line and paint the mental images as I turned each page.

I don't know that I'll be moving prior (or future) Gottlieb novels to the top of my "must read" list.  But I enjoyed this one more than I thought I would after I got started with it.

10/11/2007

And Ballmer should be worried for the exact same reason...

Category Microsoft
From InformationWeek: Microsoft's Steve Ballmer Calls Rivals 'Pretenders'

This is a typical Ballmer analyst session...  lots of bluster and little substance.  But I *love* this exchange with a Gartner analyst...

Gartner analyst Yvonne Genovese stuck it to Ballmer about her problems with Windows Vista. She was an early adopter, buying and installing Vista after her daughter gave it two thumbs up. "I like your daughter already," Ballmer said. "You're not going to like her mom in about two minutes," Genovese snapped back. She re-installed Windows XP after only two days on Vista. Ballmer kept up. "Your daughter saw a lot of value," he responded. "She's 13," Genovese quipped. "She's a user, and you're going to hire her in about nine years," Ballmer said with the last word.

Think about those implications you just laid out there, Steve...  It's the 13 year olds that are not tied to the last 20 years of operating systems.  They're the ones who think that the Web 2.0 world is how it's always been.  They're the ones who will be most comfortable with online software applications such as the type Google is making available.  They don't need mom and dad to bring home a copy of Microsoft Office from work any more.  And it's the 13 year old geeks who don't have a problem loading up an OS like Linux or who prefer Macs to PCs.  

Yeah, Steve...  they are users, we'll be hiring them in about nine years, and that should keep you awake at nights...

10/11/2007

Back in the saddle again...

Category Everything Else
The vacation is over, I'm back at home, and tomorrow I venture into work to see what horrors await me there.  :)

As you probably noticed, there were no blog entries while I was gone.  Nor did I buy the internet package aboard ship!  Of course, my new iPhone got a major workout, and it really rocks!  While I wouldn't want that to be my sole connection to the 'net, it's perfect for keeping an eye on things, answering emails that can be answered with a short reply, and texting people who need info.  It was absolutely perfect for keeping in touch with Ian and Cam while we were gone.

And even though I had the laptop with me, I didn't blog or type anything.  I think that's the longest I've been away from the keyboard in quite some time.  Frankly, it's something I should probably do more often.  Step away, recharge, and come back a bit more refreshed.

We had a great time on the cruise.  Lots of rest, relaxation, and just hanging around with no agenda and no demands.  Now I just have to get out of the afternoon nap habit that developed over the last 11 days.

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Thomas "Duffbert" Duff

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