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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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10/31/2008

Book Review - Mastering the Hype Cycle: How to Choose the Right Innovation at the Right Time By Jackie Fenn and Mark Raskino

Category Book Review Jackie Fenn Mark Raskino Mastering the Hype Cycle: How to Choose the Right Innovation at the Right Time

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It happens almost without fail for every new technology and innovation...  A new idea becomes a hot buzzword destined to change the world.  Then the euphoria bubble pops and no one wants anything to do with it.  But over time, the core concepts become ingrained in the day-to-day flow of business, and reality finally emerges.  This "hype cycle" is exactly what Jackie Fenn and Mark Raskino cover in their book Mastering the Hype Cycle: How to Choose the Right Innovation at the Right Time.  Given their backgrounds at Gartner, they've seen this happen time and time again.  For me, this solidifies one of those ideas I had that I was never quite able to put a finger on.

Contents:
Part 1 - The Hype Cycle: Hype Cycle Winners and Losers; Behind the Hype Cycle; Hype Cycle Traps and Challenges; Hype Cycle Opportunites and Lessons
Part 2 - The STREET Process: What It Takes to Master the Hype Cycle; Scope - Establishing the Context for Innovation; Track - Collecting the Innovation Candidates; Rank - Prioritizing the Candidates; Evaluate - Understanding Rewards and Risks; Evangelize and Transfer - Making It Happen; Future Cycles
Notes; Index; About the Authors

The goal in Mastering the Hype Cycle is to give organizations a way to assess new technologies and decide if and when to jump on board.  For instance, the book opens with an example of the loyalty card market in the UK.  Safeway, Tesco, and all the other major players jumped on board early while the cycle was in the uptick phase.  But after laying down a solid foundation, Safeway's board started to sour on the idea when market analysts started to dismiss the idea of database marketing and its potential benefits.  Many companies dropped the idea, including Safeway.  Tesco however, the first mover in the trend, stuck it out and continued to experiment with the idea.  That tenacity paid off with them becoming one of the largest retailers in the UK.  

The hype cycle goes through a number of distinct phases.  It all starts with an Innovation Trigger, something that's new in the industry.  The hype rises to the point of the Peak of Inflated Expectations, when everyone predicts that the new "thing" will completely change the world.  This is normally followed by the Trough of Disillusionment, when the hype doesn't live up to the reality, and people start to bail out.  But over time, the Slope of Enlightenment and the Plateau of Productivity occur.  This is where the technology or innovation is allowed to find its level of reality in the marketplace, and organizations start incorporating it into their business plans in a way that makes money.  And if you think about it, this has been played out continuously, especially over the last decade.  Internet dot.com retailing, SOA, outsourcing, etc.  It seems to happen every time.

Fenn and Raskino offer up a process by which organizations can assess these innovations and decide if and when they want to get involved.  The STREET process makes a lot of sense.  You decide what type of organization you are, and what level of risk you're prepared to take.  Based on that, you can start to determine what new innovations might affect your business, as well as when it might be advisable to get on board.  Too early, and you risk spending millions on something that doesn't catch on.  Too late, and you risk getting left behind by the competition.  

Granted, there's some element of "20-20 hindsight" here, in that there is no possible way to predict what will and won't stick, as well as when the optimal time to commit would be.  But even understanding that the hype cycle exists puts you ahead of the game.  Adding the formalized process of STREET to the mix dramatically increases your chances of not missing the boat (or putting out to sea before the boat is certified sea-worthy)...

10/31/2008

Book Review - Financial Intelligence for IT Professionals: What You Really Need to Know About the Numbers

Category Book Review Karen Berman Joe Knight John Case Financial Intelligence for IT Professionals: What You Really Need to Know About the Numbers

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Like most IT professionals, I try not to get deeply involved in accounting stuff.  While it's the scoreboard for how well the business is doing, all the terminology and techniques used to get the final score seem confusing and arcane.  But with the book Financial Intelligence for IT Professionals: What You Really Need to Know About the Numbers by Karen Berman, Joe Knight, and John Case, it's now actually possible to me to understand much of what's going on in an annual report.  If I had only had this when I was working at Enron...

Contents:
Part 1 - The Art of Finance (And Why It Matters To IT): You Can't Always Trust the Numbers; Spotting Assumptions, Estimates, and Biases; Why Increase Your Financial Intelligence?
Part 1 Toolbox: Getting what you want; The players and what they do
Part 2 - The (Many) Peculiarities of the Income Statement: Profit Is an Estimate; Cracking the Code of the Income Statement; Revenue - The Issue Is Recognition; Costs and Expenses - No Hard-and-Fast Rules; The Many Forms of Profit
Part 2 Toolbox: Variance; Percent calculations; Line of sight
Part 3 - The Balance Sheet Reveals The Most: Understanding Balance Sheet Basics; Assets - More Estimates and Assumptions (Except for Cash); On the Other Side - Liabilities and Equity; Why the Balance Sheet Matters; The Income Statement Affects the Balance Sheet
Part 3 Toolbox: Employees as assets; Expenses versus capital expenditures
Part 4 - Cash is King: Cash Is a Reality Check; Profit <> Cash (and You Need Both); The Language of Cash Flow; How Cash Connects with Everything; Why Cash Matters
Part 4 Toolbox - Free cash flow
Part 5 - Learning What The Numbers Are Really Telling You: The Power of Ratios; Profitability Ratios - The Higher the Better (Mostly); Leverage Ratios - The Balancing Act; Liquidity Ratios - Can We Pay Our Bills?; Efficiency Ratios - Making the Most of Your Assets
Part 5 Toolbox - Ratios for the business; Ratios for IT; Leading versus lagging indicators; Percent-of-sales analysis; Ratio relationships
Part 6 - How to Calculate (And Really Understand) Return On Investment: The Building Blocks of ROI; Figuring ROI - The Nitty-Gritty
Part 6 Toolbox: ROI of an IT Project
Part 7 - Applied Financial Intelligence - Working Capital Management: The Magic of Managing the Balance Sheet; Your Balance Sheet Levers; Homing In on Cash Conversion
Part 7 Toolbox: Understanding accounts-receiving aging
Part 8 - Creating a Financially Intelligent IT Department (and Organization): Financial Literacy, Transparency, and Corporate Performance; Financial Literacy Strategies
Part 8 Toolbox: Understanding Sarbanes-Oxley
Appendix A - Sample Financials; Appendix B - Exercises to Build Your Financial Intelligence - Income Statement, Balance Sheet, Cash Flow Statement, Ratios; Appendix C - Kimberly-Clark and FedEx Financial Statements; Notes; Acknowledgments; Index; About the Authors

I think what makes this book so successful is that it doesn't try to turn you (the IT person) into an accountant.  The authors use down-to-earth language and explanations to allow you to get a handle on basic accounting concepts and how they play out on financial reports.  For instance, it's a reasonable assumption to think that if you showed a million dollar profit, that you should be swimming in cash.  Or at least that's how I used to think.  But cash and profits are two entirely different things, and it's entirely possible to show a profit yet be financially strapped and unable to pay your employees.  Also, accounting rules are not the cut-and-dried calculations you might think they are.  I learned that simple decisions, like what to treat as a capital expenditure and how fast to depreciate something, have a fair amount of latitude built in.  Depending on how the company chooses, a particular scenario could be seen as either a money-losing or profit-earning venture.  All this proves that you really do need to know what's going on in order to get a true feeling for how the company's balance sheet is doing.

In many ways, this would be a great book regardless of what profession  you happen to be in.  The authors tie it back to IT in this particular case, so that you can figure out how certain numbers might affect your success or determine your direction.  Knowing that cash flow is tight in the first quarter means that you might not want to pitch that particular system upgrade in January.  If the numbers show that your receivables are running at 45 days, a smart IT manager might want to focus on system enhancements that would improve that number.  Even being able to use the correct financial terms when you're meeting with the CFO will do wonders for getting your needs considered in a more realistic fashion.

I'd recommend this book for just about any person who wants to better understand how the company they work for is performing financially.  And if you're an IT person who has some budget responsibility, this should move into the "must read" category.

10/30/2008

Comparing the Microsoft PDC conference with Lotusphere...

Category Microsoft IBM/Lotus
So I've spent the last five days getting inundated with information about where Microsoft is going in the next two years.  My thoughts on the technology will be a different blog post, but I thought it might be interesting to compare how the conferences were run.  Not having a huge pool of conference experience, it was hard *not* to compare PDC to Lotusphere.  But here are a few of my observations...

Meals - Both conferences do a nice job on meal planning.  When you're serving thousands in the course of 60 to 120 minutes, you better have your act together.  For all intents and purposes, both conferences shine there.  I'd give a slight nod to PDC for having pop (both regular and diet) on ice for all meals.  I loved knowing that I didn't have to track down a diet Coke/diet Pepsi somewhere before breakfast.  

Breaks - PDC had it all over Lotusphere in this case.  There was coffee, juice, fruit, pop, and snacks laid out for consumption from 6:30 in the morning until the final conference session at 6:30 at night.  And if you wanted a higher-end coffee experience, there was a Starbucks kiosk right there on premises.  I know many attendees would be happy with just having coffee available at all times.  I was overjoyed to see refrigerated cases in numerous places, kept fully stocked.  Apples, oranges, and bananas were always there too.  For snacks, they usually had granola bars (different flavors each day), chips, cookies, yogurt covered pretzels, Twinkies, Hostess cupcakes, etc.  Basically, if you needed something to munch on, it was there.

Transportation - a tossup.  I never had to wait for a bus from my hotel to the convention center, or from the convention center back to the hotel.  Given that some of them had to navigate through LA traffic, it was impressive.  They started running busses at 6:45 am (breakfast at 7), and often ran until 10'ish.  The downside is that they stop running altogether between like 10:30 am and 5.  They also had free bus shuttles back to the airport.  You could just see the taxi drivers seething over THAT one.  

Conference swag - It's hard to beat the 160GB external USB hard drive that had all the latest and greatest Microsoft pre-beta stuff on it.  On the flip side, their conference "bag" was something you'd find in a supermarket as an eco-friendly replacement for paper and plastic.  Needless to say, that didn't come home with me.  The vendor area seemed much smaller than Lotusphere, but the Microsoft area for their own products and hands-on labs was the same size (if not bigger) as the vendor area.  It was cool to see beanbag chairs tossed all over the place, and people banging away on xBox games.  The conference store was also rather large, with a lot in the way of book offerings and other stuff.  

Audience - PDC is very targeted...  new stuff from Microsoft, geeks abound.  It seemed to be about the same size as Lotusphere, but the demographics were very different.  At Lotusphere, you have a fair number of attendees that fall into the female gender category.  Not so at PDC.  I would be shocked if the percentage of women made it into the double digit range.  I wouldn't be surprised if it was less than 5%.  Very strange...

Conference videos - EVERY session is recorded.  EVERY session is available for download from the PDC site 24 hours after it's given.  Let me state that again...  EVERY.  SESSION.  IS.  RECORDED.  AND.  IS.  AVAILABLE.  FOR.  DOWNLOAD.  BY.  THE.  ATTENDEES.  If I could wish for any PDC feature to be copied by Lotusphere, this would be it.

Content - Lotusphere has something for everyone.  You may not like the ratios given your particular interest or function, but they try and cover it all, from strategy to bleeding edge to best practices.  Beginner to advanced.  PDC is much more targeted to geeks and those who make their living with MS technology.  If you're just getting started with MS stuff, or if you want to go back and start using the stuff today, this may not be the best place for you.  I got exposed to a lot, but I'll be the first to admit that much was over my head when it came to details.  PDC also does a great job with ad-hoc "unsession" stuff.  There's plenty of space to have spur of the moment meetings and sessions run by the attendees themselves.  I guess that PDC had more of a "geek vibe" to it than Lotusphere often does.  Not to say that Lotusphere doesn't have its share of geeks.  There just seemed to be more of them at PDC.

Miscellaneous - I loved how there was an area to check your luggage on the final day at the convention center.  Probably not as critical at Lotusphere since the event is held at hotels.  When I went to pick up my luggage to head to the airport, it looked like disembarkation on a cruise.  MILES of luggage lined up...

Most of all, I came away with an even greater appreciation for what it takes to pull off a conference the size of Lotusphere or PDC.  It's amazing that 9K to 10K people can come together and learn without tearing the place up or having the organizers swear "never again".  My hat is off to the Lotusphere group for what they do for us each year...

10/26/2008

Here in Los Angeles for Microsoft PDC...

Category Microsoft
I'm finally here in LA, in my room at the Westin Bonaventure, getting caught up on emails and hoping for an early and restful night.  I arrived around 1:15 pm, and found that they were already running shuttles between the hotels and the conference center.  I didn't register for the pre-conference, but I did head over there to register for the main conference and get all that taken care of.  It's hard not to want to compare this to Lotusphere, as that's my conference point of reference for these kind of things.  

In terms of transportation, I think LS wins.  The shuttles run later, which is a point for PDC.  But the shuttles quit running completely between 10:45 and 5'ish each day.  

The LA conference center is VERY nice so far as the lobby area goes.  Registration was smooth.  I didn't wander around the place, figuring I'd find out all the locations starting tomorrow.  Their PDC store is huge!  Books, swag, you name it.  The only part where I was disappointed is that the conference "bag" is one of those plasticky sacks like you see grocery stores selling.  I'll definitely be using my Lotusphere backpack to tote around my laptop and such.  But later in the week we go back and get the 160GB hard drive with all the software on it.  I expect that will more than tip the scale back to the PDC side.  :)

Coincidences...  My publishing contact at Pearson wasn't able to make the show, but she told me I should go to the booth and introduce myself to Curt Johnson who *would* be there.  While taking the shuttle from the airport to the hotel, I was sitting next to a guy and we were engaging in some conference small talk.  He mentioned he worked for marketing for a publisher, to which I asked him which one.  Turns out it was...  Curt Johnson.  When I introduced myself, he said...  "You're Duffbert!"  I love reviewing...  :)

Ms. McGivney happened to be leaving LA just as I was arriving, and will be coming back just as I'm leaving.  But she found time to get a copy of Wil Wheaton's latest book autographed for me, and it was waiting at the front desk when I checked in.  Thanks so much, Kathleen!

Well...  since I'm supposed to be doing some actual work, I'll close here for the evening.  I won't be twittering any of the sessions "live" here at PDC, as I'm going to be in over my head so far I'll be asking directions to the surface.  But I'm sure I'll drop a few observations in over the course of the day, now that I have a laptop that hibernates.

Oh, yeah...  the laptop.  Friday night, my Sony Vaio, just recently rebuilt with Windows XP and sitting there at the side of my desk, spontaneously rebooted.  After I got the Vaio splash screen and startup tones, I got...  nothing.  Black screen, blinking cursor, and nothing else.  Let it cool down, but it wouldn't come back to life.  Not the thing to have happen 36 hours before you leave for a week.  I decided a new laptop was in order, so I'm now the new owner of an HP Pavilion dv7.  4GB, 320GB hard drive, 17 inch screen, and very nice.  Except for having to go back to Vista 64.  Sigh...  I'd have considered a Mac, but it looks like I'll be playing more in the MS realm in terms of software development, and I think a Windows box is still better for that.  :)

And finally, I did my laundry on Saturday, only to realize on Saturday night that my wallet didn't make an exit from my pants beforehand.  I'm traveling on laundered money and credit cards.

It's NOT been a good weekend.  :)

10/26/2008

Book Review - Darkfall by Dean Koontz

Category Book Review Dean Koontz Darkfall

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I've been keeping a reading log since the mid-90's so I can figure out if I've read all the works of a particular author before spending time with the "this looks vaguely familiar" syndrome.  Darkfall by Dean Koontz is one of his earlier works written originally under the pen name of Owen West.  It came available at our library, and I didn't see it on my log.  But, given the original date of the novel, it *was* before I started keeping track.  Fortunately for me, I think this was truly one of his that I missed, and it was enjoyable getting back to the "old" Koontz style of supernatural horror thriller.  

Jack Dawson, a New York cop, arrives at a crime scene with his partner Rebecca Chandler to find a dead crime boss inside a locked room.  The body shows horrible signs of mutilation, and it's a mystery as to how someone could have gotten into the room to commit the murder.  But that body is only the first of a number that start showing up...  all linked to an organized crime family, and all graphically disfigured.  Dawson has a lead that could point to the practice of voodoo, but Chandler wants to pin the killings on something more rational and believable.  Meanwhile, Dawson's daughter is starting to get visited by rat-like creatures that have her spooked.  She doesn't want to tell anyone, as she's afraid that no one would believe her.  But these creatures are very real, and their growing presence and menace in the lives of the Dawson family could put them at the same risk as the rapidly disappearing mobsters...

I forgot how much I enjoyed Koontz's original style of writing when he was still using pen names.  The evil/supernatural element was much more graphic than his current fare, and I was always reluctant to recommend his books to someone unless I knew they liked books on the far end of that genre.  Dawson's history as a single parent along with his developing interest in Chandler as more than just a coworker mesh nicely, and the war between good and evil draws you in and doesn't let go.  The daughter seemed to be a bit too mature and wise for her years, but it worked for me given the storyline.

If you run across this book thinking it's going to be like Koontz's current bestseller work, you'll be rather shocked.  Koontz has mellowed a lot since his early days.  But if you somehow missed this one and enjoy his earlier work, then by all means clear out some time on your schedule and dive in.  

10/25/2008

Book Review - Pelham Fell Here by Ed Lynskey

Category Book Review Ed Lynskey Pelham Fell Here

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Pelham Fell Here by Ed Lynskey is a gritty detective novel about Frank Johnson who isn't quite yet a private investigator, yet needs to solve a crime before he's tried and convicted of the murder of his cousin.  Along the way, he uncovers a nasty subculture of neo-Nazi sympathizers who have ended up in a number of positions of influence in his small town.  He has a background as an MP, but there were some anger management issues along the way that led him to leave the job.  He's gone through a nasty divorce and is really just trying to stay out of trouble.  But the trouble finds him when his cousin is found shotgunned in the gun shop that he owns.  The sheriff would like to pin Johnson with the murder, since he stands to inherit the shop.  But with the help of some friends who live on the edge of life, Johnson discovers that his cousin may not have been completely on the up and up, and may well have been part of the neo-Nazi group.  All the rules of law are out the window when you're a target with a "shoot to kill on sight" order out for you.

Lynskey's main character is a deeply flawed and damaged individual.  Even though he's out for justice, he's also got a major revenge streak to deal with when it comes to his ex-wife.  His budding relationship with the new girl in town (that happened to work for his cousin at the gun shop) is one that may or may not go anywhere, which may or may not be for the best for all involved.  The action is constant with plenty of surprises along the way.  I wasn't quite in a "can't put it down" mode, but it was close...

10/25/2008

Book Review - Wrestling's Greatest Stories: Inside Stories About Cage Matches, Royal Rumbles, Smackdowns and Wrestlemania by Colin Burnett

Category Book Review Colin Burnett Wrestling's Greatest Stories: Inside Stories About Cage Matches Royal Rumbles Smackdowns and Wrestlemania

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Like many guys my age, I spent some time growing up watching that testosterone-driven soap opera known as "professional wrestling".  It's been years since I've watched a show on TV, but when I saw the book Wrestling's Greatest Stories: Inside Stories About Cage Matches, Royal Rumbles, Smackdowns & Wrestlemania by Colin Burnett at the library, I had to pick it up.  Most of the entertainers and matches he covers were the ones I fondly remember, and it was interesting reading about some of the inside stories of what went down to pull the match off.

Contents:
Introduction; A Brief History of Wrestling; The Irresistible Force, The Immovable Object; The Rivalry; A Flair for the Gold; Home Is Where The Hart Is; To Hell and Back; A Tribute Gripped By Tragedy; Glory Bound; Notes on Sources

This is a short book, only 167 pages of fairly large font type.  So in terms of time commitment, we're talking at most a couple of hours.  Burnett starts out with a history of how professional wrestling became the entertainment spectacle it is today.  Carnivals used to have wrestlers who would offer to take on all comers for a cash prize.  Even back then, scams and cons were the rule of the day.  As people started to get more excited about the matches, certain names became celebrities.  The promoters would often match up wrestlers and predetermine the outcome so as to milk the crowd for all they could get.  Over time, this staged entertainment became the norm, and promoters and organizations kept trying to one-up each other.  Each organization tended to have a certain niche or style.  NWA had more atheletic and technical wrestlers, while the WWF/WWE went more for the huge body/gimmick route.  But even though the outcomes were predetermined, there were classic matches that displayed incredible amounts of athleticism and stamina.  April 1989 had a match between Rick Flair and Ricky Steamboat that is thought to be one of the best displays ever, each man dishing out high levels of pain and punishment to the other in order to entertain the crowd.  Summer of 1998 had the classic Hell In The Cell match between Mick Foley and The Undertaker.  Foley nearly killed himself a couple of times during the match in order to create an unforgettable matchup.  While most of the bumps were planned (but still suicidal), some were not, such as when the roof of the cage collapsed and dropped Foley into the ring and knocked him out cold for two minutes.  And then there was the Survivor Series match between Bret Hart and Shawn Michaels.  Bret was going to be leaving the WWF, but didn't want to drop the title that night in front of his Canadian fans.  Vince McMahon seemed to go along with this, and Bret thought he was going to win one last time.  But McMahon and Michaels figured out a different ending, leaving Bret defeated, stunned, and extremely angry at the whole WWF organization.  That led to some of the most memorable "anti-US" heel characters ever to work a mat...

Burnett does a nice job in digging past the "official" story and getting the actual feelings of the wrestlers who sacrificed themselves night after night.  He doesn't hide the fact that the "sport" is rife with drug abuse that has caused many wrestlers to die far before their time.  I found it a bit strange to have Burnett acknowledge it's all fake, but then to describe the match action as if some of the moves and injuries were actual.  Granted, that's what you're supposed to think at the time, but having that "realism" side-by-side with the wrestlers saying they had to work the match to get that level of crowd involvement was difficult to reconcile at times.

If you happen to love wrestling, you'll enjoy the book.  It's a walk down memory lane for those who were into it "back then".  And if you just don't understand what professional wrestling is all about, then you might not find this to your liking.  This really is targeted for those who are into it...

10/24/2008

Wow! Major changes in the Amazon review ranking system, and I'm now #22!

Category Book Reviews

Talking about a shock (and pleasant surprise) this morning.  I logged onto Amazon to check my review activity, and found the following:

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Looks like they've done a major overhaul on their ranking system.  Recent activity counts for more than overall historical work.  Block voting has been minimized.  Who knows what else went into it.  Either way, it's nice to be able to say I'm in the top 25...

And Esther Schindler went from 472 to 72!  Congratulations...

Thanks to all who have voted for my reviews over the years.  

10/20/2008

Surviving the Pink Slip

Category Everything Else Software Development

From Kurt Cagle on O'Reilly's website: Surviving the Pink Slip

An excellent article on surviving when your job is a victim of today's economic crisis...  It won't make the pain go away, but it can help you start to move in a positive direction.

Everyone's been nervous for months, watching the market numbers, the stock prices, the declining sales figures. In the IT department, it's not uncommon to see programmers with one window open on code, the second on the app the code's supposed to generate ... and the third on a steady stream of plummeting financial indexes and bad news about the economy. Then, about two in the afternoon, your project manager taps you on the shoulder - special meeting in ten minutes. When you stand up from your cubicle and look around, you notice that there are several security types idling in the hallway ... and you know, instinctively, what that meeting's going to be about.

The message is usually the same - sales have dropped precipitously, management's cutting back everywhere they can. The project you're working on is important - you knew it was important when you signed on for it six months ago, but it's completion is still a few months out, and they haven't even ramped up marketing for it.

It's an all too common scenario, one that is happening more and more frequently as the economy continues its decline. The tightness of credit, the decline in disposable income and the uncertainty about the future all contribute to an environment where job losses are becoming far more frequent, even in supposedly safe areas like high tech.

There are, however, a number of things that you can do both before and after getting that pink slip to ease the transition into a new opportunity, especially if you're in IT. How to handle losing a job is something that a lot of employment agencies (and unemployment agencies) for that matter, special in, but its also worth keeping in mind that the way that you deal with jobs is a lot like the job market itself - it evolves over time, and what may have worked earlier may not be as applicable in this day and age.

Thus, the first steps towards becoming gainfully unemployed is to keep the following in mind:

more

10/19/2008

Book Review - Cast of Characters: Common People in the Hands of an Uncommon God by Max Lucado

Category Book Review Max Lucado Cast of Characters: Common People in the Hands of an Uncommon God

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Max Lucado is one of my favorite Christian inspirational authors, and his latest book Cast of Characters: Common People in the Hands of an Uncommon God continues to reinforce that opinion.  Max has a gift of taking a character or story from the Bible, resetting it in an unusual environment, and then drawing out the application and message.  It's wonderful to encounter a common passage and see it in a whole new light.

Contents:
Joseph - Joseph's Prayer; Matthew - Friends of Flops; Woman Who Washed Jesus' Feet - The 7:47 Principle; Mephibosheth - The Privilege of Paupers; Samaritan Woman - Two Tombstones; Mary, Martha, and Lazarus - Your Place in God's Band; Abigail - Barbaric Behavior; Paralyzed Man - Bright Lights on Dark Nights; John - I Can Turn Your Tradegy into Triumph; Paul - Hidden Heroes; Two Criminals - I Will Let You Choose; Moses - The Voice from the Mop Bucket; Joseph - When Crickets Make You Cranky; David - Facing Your Giants; Esther - Touching the King's Heart; Job - Where Man Covers His Mouth; Nicodemus - The Most Famous Conversion in the Bible; Jairus - The Sparkle from Eternity; Rich Young Ruler - The Affluent Poor; Sarah, Peter, and Paul - The Kingdom of the Absurd; Lazarus - The Final Witness; Peter - The Gospel of the Second Chance; Conclusion - Cast of Characters; Notes; Sources

It's tempting to look at Biblical characters and attribute spiritual qualities to them, to "clean them up" to fit the way God used them.  But the reality is that most of them were common people who were deeply flawed in many ways.  Despite their failures, God used them in ways that made a huge impact.  For instance, Moses was used to lead an entire nation to a land promised to them by God.  But he spent many years hiding out in the desert, trying to escape an act of murder he committed.  Peter turned his back on Jesus when he was being led to His death, yet he was used to spread the gospel to many nations.  And Paul...  an avowed enemy of Christianity who became an evangelist after a close encounter with God on a road in Damascus.  Thought-out the book, you see that your background and status is irrelevant in terms of how God wants to use you.

On top of his inspirational messages, Lucado does an exceptional job in resetting the stories in ways that make you stop and think.  Moses and the burning bush becomes Henry the janitor and the glowing mop bucket.  Matthew the tax collector is living the life of a organized crime member, complete with all the bling.  Jairus the rabbi becomes Wallace the high ranking official of a religious denomination.  Even though the trappings of the story change, the underlying truth remains the same.  Each chapter ends with a series of questions for reflection and discussion, so it can easily be used for personal devotions or small group discussions.

This is one of those books that you'll read and reread a number of times depending on whatever particular crisis you might be experiencing.  And each time, you'll see facets of God's character that you never noticed or understood before...

10/18/2008

Book Review - The Paranormal Caught On Film by Dr. Melvyn Willin

Category Book Review Melvyn Willin The Paranormal Caught On Film

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I follow my local library's new books in circulation via an RSS feed.  So when the book The Paranormal Caught On Film by Dr. Melvyn Willin showed up, I though it might be a fun few hours of reading.  In reality, it wasn't much more than about 90 minutes of pictures and commentary that in the end didn't do much more me one way or the other.

The book is 141 pages of pictures and commentary on photographs that purport to show paranormal activity or beings.  They are classed into the categories of Ghostly Figures, Strange Lights & Apparitions, Simulacra, The Unexplained - Poltergeists & Other Phenomena, and Back From The Dead.  The layout of the book is small, usually with a picture on one page and the commentary on the opposing side.  To Willin's credit, he doesn't attempt to defend each and every picture as authentic.  In fact, he usually states the case for both sides of the argument of "staged" or "real".  It's even more surprising given that he's a paranormal researcher, and you'd expect some bias towards one end of the spectrum.  The pictures range from old turn of the century shots to camera phone clicks that ended up showing more than the phone owner originally saw.  Based on what type of picture it is, Willin is realistic as to what normal events could have happened to create the image.  Some are very explainable, while others are much less so.

While the pictures were interesting, ultimately the book didn't do much for me.  I'm more than willing to be open to the existence of "paranormal" phenomenon, so it's not as if I disagreed with the writer.  I think it was more along the lines of the book being small, and the writer never really coming down on one side or the other on many of the images.  In the end, I felt like I was looking at someone's personal photo album with a few comments thrown in.  For a library read, it was good.  But if I had paid money to purchase the book, I think I would have been very disappointed.

10/18/2008

Book Review - The Thin White Line: A History of the 2012 Avian Flu Pandemic in Canada by Craig DiLouie

Category Book Review Craig DiLouie The Thin White Line: A History of the 2012 Avian Flu Pandemic in Canada

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A couple years ago, you couldn't turn on a newscast without getting a story about how avian flu was about to break out into a global pandemic.  As with most news stories, the hype eventually wore down and media moved on to other hot topics.  But the reality remains that a pandemic flu outbreak is something that could realistically happen with little to no warning.  Craig DiLouie takes a fictional "after the fact" look at the effects of a pandemic in his book The Thin White Line: A History of the 2012 Avian Flu Pandemic in Canada.  It's written as a documentary that looks at an avian flu pandemic that hit the world in 2012.  Specifically, he looks at the history of the outbreak from where it started in China, how it got into Canada, and how it decimated the country for a ten week period.

In this fictional story, a restaurant worker in Guangdong province in China comes down with a case of the flu.  Although the hospital there tries to treat him for flu and pneumonia, he quickly dies of this new illness.  More cases start coming in, and as in the past China refuses to publically acknowledge that anything is amiss.  This denial unfortunately allows others, especially non-Chinese, to come in contact with the infection and transport it home to their own countries.  Two business travelers come home from a trip to Guangdong province.  By this time, the world suspects that something major is going on, but there are few hard facts.  Canadian border guards are able to detain and quarantine one of the men as he's going through customs.  The other person is not showing symptoms and passes through.  From this single mistake, the avian flu pandemic starts to spread like wildfire throughout the country (and the world in general).  Hospitals are quickly overwhelmed with the crush of patients and the loss of their own staff.  Essential services start to shut down as people are ordered to stay away from public gatherings.  As basic commodities start to run short, the black market becomes a thriving business.  Canada brings in their troops to enforce law and guard supply deliveries, but even then they're a target for attacks.  After the first phase of the pandemic runs its course, things slowly start to come back online for Canada, but the world will never quite be the same.  Its neighbor to the south, the United States, is a mere shell of itself after declaring martial law and having its economy collapse without having access to world funds to finance their debt.

For the most part, I found this smallish book an interesting read.  It's one thing to be told by the media and officials that millions will die.  It's another thing to read the "actual" story of how it happened and what effects it had on daily life.  It was very obvious that we (the public) trust our lives to a relative minority of people who are willing to risk their own lives to care for us (doctors, nurses, law enforcement, etc.)  It was also sobering to see how something like a flu outbreak could have such far-reaching consequences to the economy.  Were something like that to happen now with our current economic credit crisis, I'm not sure we'd have anything left to go back to.  The book is a bit dry and repetitive in places, but I attribute that to the "documentary" style of the writing.  If this had been written as a novel, I'm sure the color and emotions would have been even stronger.

If you happen to come across this book at your library or bookstore, it's worth looking at.  It won't necessarily prevent you from being a victim during the next pandemic (that *will* come someday), but it might start you thinking in terms of what you can do to be prepared for the disruption of life that will occur.

10/16/2008

Book Review - Conversational Capital: How to Create Stuff People Love to Talk About by Bertrand Cesvet

Category Book Review Bertrand Cesvet Tony Babinski Eric Alper Conversational Capital: How to Create Stuff People Love to Talk About

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So how do you create products and offerings that people rave over?  The things that become urban legends and nearly sell themselves with almost no effort?  Bertrand Cesvet (with Tony Babinski and Eric Alper) looks at that elusive target in the book Conversational Capital: How to Create Stuff People Love to Talk About.  You may not be able to turn your product and brand into the examples covered here, but you'll have a much better understanding of why the conversations happen in the first place.

Contents:
About The Authors; How This Book Came Together; This Is An Open Source Book; Forward by Hermann Deininger; Introduction
Part One - Defining Conversational Capital: What Is Conversational Capital?; The Eight Engines of Conversational Capital; How Conversational Capital Works - Cirque Du Soleil, Ikea, Schwartz's; Why Conversational Capital Works; Conversational Capital Is Not Buzz; Conversational Capital And Advocacy; Conversational Capital Is For Everyone
Part Two - The Engines of Conversational Capital: Rituals; Initiation; Exclusive Product Offering (EPO); Over-Delivery; Myths; Relevant Sensory Oddity (RSO); Icons; Tribalism; Endorsement; Continuity
Part Three - Implementing Conversational Capital: Getting Started; Designing a Solution; Implementation; And Two More Questions
Glossary of Terms; Index

It's hard to deny that attending a Cirque Du Soleil performance or visiting an Ikea store is an experience that far surpasses going to the circus or visiting a furniture store.  But what is it that causes these brands to evoke such strong emotion and passion in those who experience them?  Cesvet calls this "conversational capital", the process of consumers becoming vocal and committed advocates of an experience.  This "capital" can allow a business to transcend and redefine the market.  After analyzing these exceptional brands (including but not limited to Crocs, Altoids, Guinness, and Corona), he found eight drivers, or "engines", that are all (or in large part) present for these offerings.  The engines are rituals, exclusive product offerings (EPO), myths, relevant sensory oddities (RSO), icons, tribalism, endorsement, and continuity.  For instance, rituals include a driver called initiation.  This is where an offering has a certain component that involves overcoming some internal or external obstacle.  Take Cirque...  there's that dead time between the doors opening and the show starting.  Cirque doesn't waste it, however.  The clowns start to wander around the venue and interact with the audience.  There's a chance that anyone sitting there might end up being part of the show, whether they want to be or not.  It's not a high level of initiation, but it does create a certain edge that makes the preshow something that can't be written off as normal.  This is but one example of how the engines of conversational capital can come together to make something far greater than the sum of its parts.

There's no sure-fire way to get these engines to fire every single time you want them to.  The implementation plan discussed in Part 3 is pretty basic, but at least it's far better than just hoping for the best.  I find that often the key to success is starting to understand what you don't know.  After reading Conversational Capital, I had a much better understanding of how those special businesses and brands have become that way.  This is well worth reading...

10/16/2008

"Think Globally, Act Locally"... does that apply to our Presidential elections?

Category Everything Else

One of the "green" sayings that is often quoted is "think globally, act locally".  Normally this is applied to making wise personal decisions that show responsible behavior towards the global ecosystem.  But lately, the same phrase has been echoing in my mind in terms of our Presidential elections.  Should we be thinking globally when we vote locally?

The article that triggered this post today was from CNN titled Europe mocks 'half-baked Alaskan' Palin.  The journalist gets bonus points for the creative food reference.  But this quote struck me as critical:

 For Europeans, who were alienated during George W. Bush's first four years by a president who showed little interest in their continent and patently cared nothing for the opinions of its leaders, the turning point probably came with the appearance on the Katie Couric show when Palin confessed to not having had a passport until 2006.

Europeans are appalled at the thought that someone who wants to be vice president of the most powerful nation on earth had so little interest in the rest of a world which is so vitally affected by the decisions of the man, or woman, in the White House.

If we were a nation of a million people tucked into the corner of some continent, I would think that no one much would care *who* we elect.  But for better or worse, the United States exerts a huge amount of influence on the world stage.  While tempting to say it's nobody's business who we elect, I would beg to differ.  Our decision to invade Iraq has had ramifications for the entire Middle East.  Our system of capitalism and "big business" has contributed mightily to the current financial crisis engulfing the world.  And the leader of our country is one of a small handful of people who could end life as we know it on the planet with a simple command to launch a missile.  Do you think that the world has a stake in who we elect?

I think I first became exposed to this "global" responsibility when I read and reviewed the book America Misunderstood.  It was the first time I had been exposed in large part to non-American media views on our Presidential process.  I guess I could consider that a major step in my political maturation process...  coming to the conclusion that it's not "all about us".

To be clear, I'm not advocating that we open up our election process to six billion people.  It's still important and vital that we elect a leader who can guide our country, understanding that there will always be times where we're not in agreement with our allies.  But electing someone who only has "Joe Six-Pack" as their target constituency is a recipe for disaster in our global interactions.  In addition to having a leader that we can be confident in, we also need a leader who will not be dismissed on the world stage.  

And yes, I personally think we're in danger of doing just that if we're not careful...

10/14/2008

Book Review - The Shack by William P. Young

Category Book Review William P. Young The Shack

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OK...  So I'm a bit behind the curve on this one.  Already nearly 1600 reviews out on Amazon for The Shack by William P. Young.  Needless to say, it took a bit of time before I got to the top of the library hold list.  It didn't take me long to read the story, as I found it intriguing.  It's a different slant and method for looking at how God works.  Theologically, I can't say I fully agreed with it.  Still, I think it was a worthwhile read.

Mackenzie Allen Philips, or Mack to nearly everyone, has lived through a trauma that every parent fears and dreads.  While on a camping trip with his kids, he has to dive into a lake to save two children from drowning in an overturned canoe.  But while everyone is focused on that, a serial child killer grabs his young daughter from their campsite and disappears.  The authorities are able to follow the trail to an abandoned cabin deep in the woods, where they find the girl's bloodstained dress.  But beyond that, nothing...  Mack has no real closure, and "The Great Sorrow" weighs heavy on him over the following months and years..  During a winter trek to his mailbox, he gets a note inviting him back to the cabin to meet with "Papa", which was his wife and daughter's nickname for God.  He wants to write it off as a cruel hoax, but he can't let it die.  Either he'll go up to an empty cabin, meet with the killer, or come face to face with God.

Once he arrives at the cabin, he finds it totally undisturbed from the last time he was there.  In frustration and anger he lashes out, but a strange thing happens.  The site is instantly transformed into a spring day, a tidy cabin, and three visitors who are there to show him things he can't even imagine.  Over the course of the weekend, Papa, Jesus, and Sarayu reveal the power of God in ways that bring Mack to a point where he can finally heal and forgive.  He's still not sure how he can explain all of this to people when he gets back, especially given the twist at the end of the story...

From a fiction perspective, I really liked the book.  Mack seemed very real, and you could easily understand his anguish at failing to protect his family.  I also appreciated some of the "color" that Young was able to add to theological concepts that too often remain more abstract than practical.  It made me think more than I normally do when reading fiction.  Unfortunately, some of that colorful theology seemed to be more new-age'ish than traditional.  Casting God the Father as an African-American woman who is cooking in the kitchen was a scene right out of the Matrix.  Using The Shack as a Bible replacement would *not* be a good thing...

For me, I'd rate it a bit higher than I might rate some other book that tried this approach.  I wouldn't hesitate to read it again knowing what I know now.  It'll challenge many of your mental images and mindsets of who God is and how He works.  Just remember that you *should* challenge it...

10/14/2008

Anyone going to the Microsoft PDC conference in LA in a couple of weeks?

Category Microsoft

I'm going to be heading down there myself in order to start ramping up on some additional skills for work.  If you're going to be there, let me know and perhaps us brave Lotuspherians can band together for protection...  :)

I'll admit this will be rather strange.  I'm sure it'll be similar to my very first Lotusphere when I sat there not understanding 90% of what was going on.  I'll also have a hard time not comparing it to Lotusphere as it's the same type of conference.  The party is Tuesday night instead of Wednesday (Universal Studio).  One thing that will *definitely* be nice, however...  it looks like part of the conference material package includes a 160GB external hard drive.  Guess that's *one* way to get all your software into the hands of your technical base.  :)  Could also explain why the conference is more expensive than Lotusphere, too...

10/12/2008

Book Review - Peaceful Endings: The NOPOSAM Project by Michael K. Tucker

Category Book Review Michael K. Tucker Peaceful Endings: The NOPOSAM Project

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Michael K. Tucker contacted me and asked if I would be interested in reviewing his novel, Peaceful Endings: The NOPOSAM Project.  Billed as a nanotech thriller, it was definitely in the genre range that I enjoy.  For a first novel, Tucker has done a good job.  It suffers (in my opinion) from a common problem in first novels...  realistic dialogue.  But it's not enough to detract from what was a story that kept me coming back to learn the outcome.

People are dying in droves in tiny Rhode Island from totally unexplained causes.  They start sweating profusely and develop an intense thirst.  But before anything can be done, they drop dead.  Doug Talbot, a free-lance cameraman for the local TV station, gets caught up in the crisis when his daughter Cassandra contracts the strange illness that is killing everyone.  He takes her to the hospital, where he's able to get her in the care of Dr. Marilynn (two n's) Harwell, a physician he happened to meet earlier in a local food court.  This chance meeting has unintended consequences, however.  A covert government agency, the SIA, observed Talbot taking pictures of a high-ranking general in the organization prior to the lunch meeting, and they have both Harwell and Talbot under surveillance.  As the medical crisis spreads and the government declares martial law, they also target Harwell and Talbot as "terrorists" who can be blamed for a biological attack.  Harwell discovers the real reason behind the deaths, and both her and Talbot have to go on the run in order to expose the truth and save his daughter.

In terms of plot and characters, I liked the story.  The premise was interesting, and it's one of those "conspiracy" plots that unfortunately becomes more believable with time.  The only problem I had was with some of the dialogue.  I find that first time novelists often have dialogue that is too cute and perfect.  For instance, Harwell goes off on a rant about a death that she feels she should have been able to predict and prevent.  After everything that her and Talbot had gone through, the words just didn't seem natural.  If this were one of many novels that Tucker had written, I don't think I'd be quite as understanding.  But in this case, it's far from the worst cases I've read, and it didn't detract from my enjoyment of the story.  This was a fun read, and I look forward to reading his follow-up novel due later.

10/11/2008

Book Review - slide:ology: The Art and Science of Creating Great Presentations by Nancy Duarte

Category Book Review Nancy Duarte slide:ology: The Art and Science of Creating Great Presentations

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It's almost a cliche to complain about how most presentations are horrible.  But fortunately there are a select few books out there that take you beyond the mechanics of creating a presentation.  Nancy Duarte has one of those books that need to be read by every presenter...  slide:ology: The Art and Science of Creating Great Presentations.  It's my hope that this book gets a wide reading by all who stand up in front of groups and convey a message.

Contents:
Introduction; Create a New Slide Ideology; Creating Ideas, Not Slides; Creating Diagrams; Displaying Data; Thinking Like a Designer; Arranging Elements; Using Visual Elements - Background, Color, and Text; Using Visual Elements - Images; Creating Movement; Governing with Templates; Interacting with Slides; Manifesto - The Five Theses of the Power of a Presentation; Reference; Index

Duarte leads a design firm that is responsible for shaping the message and images that define a company's message.  In slide:ology, she distills down the important information they use to design slides and presentations that make an impact, both visually and emotionally.  She starts with defining how presentations are meant to convey ideas, not slides.  All too often, presenters use slides as a crutch to hide behind.  If all the information is there, then they don't have to worry about forgetting anything.  Conversely, they also aren't needed as part of the presentation, either.  These text-heavy, multi-bulleted slides are really documents in disguise.  They're meant to be printed off and read, not presented to a group.  After the theory and concepts are presented, she gets into the mechanics of how those impact slides are created, everything from color and font selection to image use and placement.  In many ways, the book is also an example of her work.  Rather than pages and pages of text with standard images, the layout is designed to enhance the message and cement the concepts in the reader's mind.  Although it feels like you're reading a work of literary art, you're also absorbing the message almost without effort.  It's nearly impossible to come away from reading slide:ology without looking at presentations in the same way again.

Up to the point of reading slide:ology, I was convinced that Presentation Zen by Garr Reynolds was the only absolute "must read" for presenters.  I would now contend that slide:ology should be purchased and read at the same time.  I've started to incorporate many of these ideas in my presentations, and it's made a major difference (positively, that is).  You owe it to yourself, and especially your audience, to read slide:ology.  You'll be happier with your efforts to communicate, and your audience will be MUCH happier listening to you present.

10/11/2008

Book Review - The Integrity Dividend: Leading by the Power of Your Word by Tony Simons

Category Book Review Tony Simons The Integrity Dividend: Leading by the Power of Your Word

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Quite often I'll read a book that I think is very well done, with truths that resonate with me.  But less often do I find that book at a time when it fits so well with current events.  One such book is The Integrity Dividend: Leading by the Power of Your Word by Tony Simons.  As we watch corporations and financial systems crumble under the weight of unethical and dishonest actions, Simons presents a truth that is too often neglected in the workplace.  But even more, everything that you read here also applies to your personal life.  I know I find myself falling woefully short in this area, and am convicted to change.

Contents:
Part 1 - What Is The Integrity Dividend?: The Dollar Value of Your Impeccable Word; Executive Sightings of the Integrity Dividend; Behavioral Integrity Drivers and Payoffs - Why Small Mistakes Can Have Big Costs
Part 2 - Managing Your Own Behavioral Integrity - Building Trust and Credibility: Promise Less, But Do It More Often; The Language of Living by Your Word - Confronting and Committing; Behavioral Integrity as a Personal Discipline
Part 3 - Behavioral Integrity and the Ripple Effect - Building and Sustaining a Leadership Culture of Integrity:  Easing the Middle Manager's Dilemma; Creating a Culture of Accountability; Management Fashions and the Flavor-of-the-Month Club
Part 4 - Broader Applications and Summary: The Integrity Dividend and Outside Stakeholders; Capturing the Integrity Dividend
Notes; Acknowledgments and Dedication; About the Author; Index

In order to lead effectively, you have to have credibility.  And in order to have credibility, you have to deliver on what you promise or say you will do, as well as behaving consistently with those words and promises.  It's this premise on which The Integrity Dividend is based.  Leaders in business (and really in all types of organizations) can only be effective if the people following them know that there is no gap between what you say and what you do.  This type of leadership has many benefits, not the least of which is financial.  Staff who know they can rely on their leadership to do as they say will be more loyal and effective in what they do.  This translates to higher performance within the business, as well as more satisfied customers.  The "corporation" also must have integrity, such as following through on promises they make to the public (like no-questions-asked guarantees).  If the public finds that your actions are not consistent with the promises or image, then they will quickly find another company that is.  Likewise, if you and the company are seen to have complete behavioral integrity between what you do and say, their loyalty will know few bounds.

Rather than keep everything on what could be a purely academic or theoretical level, Simons relates all his work back to actual real-life situations.  This makes it very easy to follow his train of thought, and adds a level of credibility to his ideas.  He's also not afraid to say that some areas have no good answers.  For instance, a middle manager can often be stuck between a decision from on high that violates his personal views and positions.  But ultimately, the choice quite often comes down to follow the decision because everyone needs to be on the same page, or leave your position because you're crossing a line that you will not violate.  Unfortunately, there aren't always easy answers to problems, and Simons acknowledges that.

For me personally, I have been struggling with the "sure, I can do that" promise.  Instead of saying no or setting realistic expectations, I say that I intend to do "x" in the near future.  Then when I can't deliver because of over-commitment, I feel bad and the customer suffers.  I have a lot of work to do on improving my behavioral integrity, and I appreciate the work that Tony Simons has done in The Integrity Dividend to help me in that area.

10/11/2008

Book Review - The Walk-In by Gary Berntsen and Ralph Pezzullo

Category Book Review Gary Berntsen Ralph Pezzullo The Walk-in

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A friend recommended The Walk-In by Gary Berntsen and Ralph Pezzullo as a good spy thriller.  I picked up a copy from the library, and it made it to the top of my recreational reading list rather quickly.  This ended up being an excellent story with elements that are all too imaginable in real-life...

Matt Freed is a counter-terrorism agent who is tasked to interview an Iranian thought to be a highly placed intelligence operative.  He tells Freed that there are two major terrorist operations about to happen, and that Freed will be shot if he leaves the building.  The first bombing is to be carried out in Qatar, while the second will be a significant strike on US soil.  The officer says he doesn't yet have the details on the second threat, but he's still working with the terrorist group to find out what is planned.  Freed obviously knows this is important intel...  provided it's accurate and truthful.  On the surface, the details seem to pan out, and authorities are able to minimize the damage of the first attack.  But details of the second attack are still unknown, and the Iranian wants to be permitted entry to the US in order to save his own life.  US authorities are mobilizing to fight this unknown threat, and they're willing to let the Iranian into the country.  Freed isn't completely convinced that this isn't a set-up, and he nearly throws his career away to try and find out if the informant is actually the attacker.  Frantic trips to Uzbekistan and Moscow reveal details that, if true, means that hundreds of thousands of US citizens will die.  But if Freed is wrong, his actions may start another war in the Middle East...

Berntsen and Pezzullo have teamed up to create a very tight spy novel that could be happening right now for all we know.  Berntsen was actually a CIA counter-terrorism agent, so his plot and characters have a ring of authenticity to them.  Pezzullo ties the storyline together with excellent writing, and the net effect is a novel that's hard to put down, as well as uncomfortable to read and think about...

10/11/2008

Book Review - Personal Development for Smart People: The Conscious Pursuit of Personal Growth by Steve Pavlina

Category Book Review Steve Pavlina Personal Development for Smart People: The Conscious Pursuit of Personal Growth

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I was recently sent a copy of Steve Pavlina's book Personal Development for Smart People: The Conscious Pursuit of Personal Growth.  I'm always game for trying to make myself better.  Pavlina's book is quite a bit different than most personal development books that you'll read, in that he deals much more with *who* you are rather than *what* you are doing.  I don't know that I would recommend it for everyone, as it's got a number of slants that run contrary to my own personal faith and belief system (but there's a section in there that would explain how that's limiting...)  Still, if you want to think beyond the "what do I do next" level, Pavlina will take you there...

Contents:
Part 1 - Fundamental Principles: Truth; Love; Power; Oneness; Authority; Courage; Intelligence
Part 2 - Practical Application: Habits; Career; Money; Health; Relationships; Spirituality
Afterword; Resources; About the Author

Steve Pavlina is an interesting person.  He was someone who lived a life that was pretty reckless (shoplifting, drinking, generally wild), and came to a realization that this wasn't the type of person he wanted to be.  Thus started his search for personal growth and development, focusing mostly on the internal person.  This mentality shift allowed him to do a number of rather incredible things, like earning a four year degree from California State University - Northridge in three semesters by tripling the normal class load.  He was doing well as a computer game developer, but he didn't feel like this career choice was resonating with him.  Instead, he decided to start a website focusing on personal development, which is where we find him now (and he's doing *very* well at it).  His life goal now is to seek out truth and share it with others.

Pavlina has a framework for the inner person.  Imagine a triangle with the points labeled Truth, Power, and Love.  These are the core principles.  There are four secondary principles (labeled on the sides and in the center) that are made up of a combination of the core items: Authority (Truth & Power), Courage (Love & Power), Oneness (Love & Truth), and Intelligence (all three).  He explains how each of these principles can affect your life, and how they might manifest if they are out of balance.  This part of the book is more "theory" than "practical", as he's laying the groundwork for the second part of the book, which is the practical applications of these principles.  Here is where most readers of personal development books will feel more at ease, as there are actual actions to follow.  Conversely, if you don't have the fundamental principles down, then these actions will be mostly superficial and short-lived.  Taken as a whole, Pavlina presents a methodology that touches on all aspects of your life.

I did take away a number of concepts to try out.  For instance, he's a big proponent of 30 day experiments.  For instance, he became a vegetarian based on a 30 day experiment he tried to see how it worked.  That eventually lead to becoming a vegan, again based on that 30 day commitment.  He also tried unusual things, like adapting to polyphasic sleep (30 minute naps every 4 hours, thereby sleeping only two hours a day).  That was actually successful, but he eventually dropped it as it put him out to sync with others that he wanted to spend time with.  On the flip side (and where I struggled with the book), there's a heavy emphasis on thinking patterns that would be more new-age or eastern in nature.  Imaging yourself to be one with the pencil you're holding isn't something that resonates well with me, nor would I subscribe to the thinking that each person is the final arbitrator of what is right and wrong for themselves.  

There is definite value to be had in this book.  I know a number of people who would subscribe wholeheartedly to all of the content here.  Others like myself will end up filtering the material through their own values and world view.  Based on which one you are will likely determine how well you like the book.

10/08/2008

Shred My Code - Parsing text in a Rich Text Field

Category IBM/Lotus

I thought about naming this feature "Pimp My Code", but I know what people have done to code I posted in the past.  Therefore, "shred" sounded more appropriate.  :)

But seriously, I wanted to share this code and open it up for comment.  It's a part of the Domino Object Model I haven't played with before, and I'm sure there's a ton of room for improvement.

Scenario:  I have a Rich Text field in a Notes client document.  The document is edited in Notes, but viewed in the browser.  The field stores an "audit history" of document changes from the business perspective.  It's in Rich Text because they wanted certain parts of it colored and bolded, and well...  it made sense at the time.  Here's the format of the information, one line per audit event:

02-07-08 09:00 AM - Modification - This document was changed to conform to the updated regulations.
12-12-07 01:00 PM - Add - Originally added for reference

Forget the fact that the dates are in mm-dd-yy format, as this isn't used internationally.  

When I examine each line of the Rich Text field, there are three text runs.  The red text is one run, the description is a second run, and what appears to be a blank (but acts like a linefeed) is the final run in the line.

My task was to create an agent that would go through this field and eliminate any lines where the date was older than 12 months from today.  Had I known this earlier, I would have had them use HTML in the field, made it a multi-value text field, and it would have been a breeze.  Given that it was already Rich Text, I wasn't sure how I was going to be able to do this.  But I started to dig into the NotesRichText objects, I realized that I might be able to string together some NotesRichTextNavigator and NotesRichTextRange methods and properties and pull this off.

My logic below grabs a navigator of the whole Rich Text item, grabs the text run element, and examines it.  If it's a date that's before the 12 month cutoff, then you just keep parsing until you find another date or you get to the end.  Once you find a date that is older than 12 months, then you go to the purge loop that will eliminate everything in the field from that point on (since the date entries are in descending date order).

Normally I don't use loops and gotos like this.  But as I was hacking through this during various parts of three days, this is the code that evolved as working.  The only glitch I see so far is it tends to leave blank lines at the end if it's deleting lines.

Feel free to discuss, comment, slice, dice, R&D, whatever.  I haven't ever seen much in the way of code that parses Rich Text using these DOM objects, so this was all new to me...

Sub Initialize

 'Create objects to be used in this routine
 Dim session As New NotesSession
 Dim ws As New NotesUIWorkspace
 Dim dbThis As NotesDatabase
 Dim uidocThis As NotesUIDocument
 Dim docThis As NotesDocument
 Dim rtiHistory As NotesRichTextItem
 Dim rtnHistory As NotesRichTextNavigator
 Dim rtrHistory As NotesRichTextRange
 Dim ndtCutoffDate As NotesDateTime
 Dim varCutoffDate As Variant
 Dim strItemDate As String
 Dim lngTotalElements As Long
 
 On Error Goto logError
 
 
'Get the current document that's open
 Set dbThis = session.CurrentDatabase
 Set uidocThis = ws.CurrentDocument
 Set docThis = uidocThis.Document
 Set ndtCutoffDate = New NotesDateTime(Today)
 Call ndtCutoffDate.AdjustMonth(-12)
 varCutoffDate = Cdat(ndtCutoffDate.DateOnly)
 lngTotalElements = 1
 
 
'Get the field that has the history we need to purge
 Set rtiHistory = docThis.GetFirstItem("subHistoryArchiving")
 Set rtnHistory = rtiHistory.CreateNavigator
 
LoopForGoodItems:
 
 
'Start iterating through the history.  For each history line, there are three text runs. 
 'The first is the date/time/action, the second is the detail, and the third is the linefeed.

 
 Call rtnHistory.FindNthElement(RTELEM_TYPE_TEXTRUN, lngTotalElements)
 If rtnHistory.FindNthElement(RTELEM_TYPE_TEXTRUN, lngTotalElements) Then
  Set rtrHistory = rtiHistory.CreateRange
  Call rtrHistory.SetBegin(rtnHistory)
  Call rtrHistory.SetEnd(rtnHistory)
  
'Don't try to parse out a date if the returned textrun is nothing more than a linefeed or blank.
  If Len(rtrHistory.TextRun) > 0 Then
   
'Parse out the date, see if it *is* a date, and then compare it to 12 month cutoff.  If you hit the cutoff date,
   'then we'll break out to the purge loop to clear out everything that follows.  Otherwise, keep on looping.

   strItemDate = Left$(rtrHistory.TextRun, (Instr(1,rtrHistory.TextRun, " ") - 1))
   If Isdate(strItemDate) Then
    If Cdat(strItemDate) >= varCutoffDate Then
     lngTotalElements = lngTotalElements + 1
     Goto LoopForGoodItems
    Else
     Goto LoopForPurge
    End If
   Else
    lngTotalElements = lngTotalElements + 1
    Goto LoopForGoodItems
   End If
  Else
   lngTotalElements = lngTotalElements + 1
   Goto LoopForGoodItems
  End If
 Else
  Goto LoopForPurge
 End If
 
LoopForPurge:
 
 
'This loop just keeps on purging text runs until you get to the end of the rich text area.
 
 If rtnHistory.FindNthElement(RTELEM_TYPE_TEXTRUN, lngTotalElements) Then
  Call rtrHistory.Remove() 
  Set rtrHistory = rtiHistory.CreateRange
  Call rtrHistory.SetBegin(rtnHistory)
  Call rtrHistory.SetEnd(rtnHistory)
  Goto LoopForPurge
 End If
 
 
'This will be fired once you have nothing left in the field to purge.
 Call docThis.Save(True, False)
 
 Exit Sub
 
logError:   
 Call LogError
 Exit Sub
 
End Sub

10/07/2008

Book Review - Fade Away by Harlan Coben

Category Book Review Harlan Coben Fade Away

A picture named M2

I've been on a bit of a recreational reading kick lately...  probably trying to escape the stress of the economy.  Anyway, my number finally came up at the library for the latest Myron Bolitar novel by Harlan Coben...  Fade Away.  It's been awhile since I've had the pleasure of reading Bolitar's irreverent dialog and his interaction with his partner Win Lockwood.  And as always, it's a treat.

Bolitar, a sports agent and one-time promising basketball phenom (before his knee was blown out at the very start of his professional career), is approached by the owner of the New Jersey Dragons.  They're a playoff-bound team with a minor problem...  their star player Greg Downing has disappeared.  He's a bit of a head case anyway, and the team is trying to sell it to the media as seclusion to rehab an injured ankle.  The owner wants to sign Bolitar to finish out the season with the team, basically as a scrub player with some name appeal of what "could have been".  But what he really wants is for Bolitar to investigate from the inside and see if he can solve the mystery.  Bolitar's not sure he wants to subject himself to public ridicule as a player, but the chance to have his shot at the pros is too strong.  He takes the case and quickly finds a number of people who could have wanted Downing dead, including an ex-wife and some underworld characters.  As Bolitar digs deeper, no one ends up being exactly who they say they are (or who Bolitar thinks they are).  He has to question everything, including his own past, to solve this case and find closure for his professional life that never was.

There's not much more to say other than this was just a fun read.  Bolitar always seems to be one snide remark away from getting the pulp beat out of him.  He basically says all the smart-alex things you'd *like* to say if you had time to think about it (and there were no repercussions).  The dialog is one of the main reasons why I enjoy the Myron Bolitar series.  Couple that with a plot that keeps twisting with no resolution until the end (and even then, there's still a few surprises), and it's my idea of a perfect book for killing a few hours at  home or on a plane.

10/06/2008

Book Review - The Master Planets by Donald Gallinger

Category Book Review Donald Gallinger The Master Planets

A picture named M2

I was contacted by Donald Gallinger recently, asking if I'd be interested in receiving a copy of his book The Master Planets.  The description and premise was such that I was interested enough to agree.  Within about 25 pages, my "I need to be doing..." list was completely shot, because I didn't want to put the book down.  That surprised me a bit, as Master Planets isn't necessarily an action-driven novel.  But the characters were so real that I found myself emotionally drained at the end.

The story starts with Peter Jameson meeting with an Israeli ambassador who is asking him to attend yet another memorial tribute to his mother.  He's tired of being a figurehead for who his mother was and what she did during World War II.  From that meeting, Gallinger takes you back to Peter's youth and traces his path to where he finds himself now.  Jameson was always convinced that he was meant to be a rock star, and with a few friends he formed a band called The Master Planets.  Through a combination of skill, stubbornness, and a little luck, The Master Planets start a meteoric rise up the record charts.  But lurking in the background is Peter's family.  His mother has a secret past that has never been revealed to the kids.  His father is relatively detached from the family, although he cares for them very much.  Through a series of events, Peter finds that his mother was a partisan resister during the war, and was responsible for saving thousands of lives of Jews through her actions.  But she was also responsible for the gruesome deaths of many German soldiers, and indirectly for the deaths of countless others who were killed in reprisal for her assassinations and raids.  Her suicide and possible link to the death of a German war criminal starts to gnaw at his creative efforts, and the band's success starts to stagnate.  When an Israeli general contacts him and starts to reveal the full story of his mother's past, it sends Peter and all those around him into a tailspin.  He has to figure out how to reconcile his mother's past with his current life, and no part of that life is unaffected.

I was surprised at the way this grabbed me, as I'm normally more inclined to shy away from introspective novels.  It's not that there's no action in The Master Planets, it's simply a case of the characters interaction with their past is what drives the story and plot.  The book was written in first-person form from Peter's point of view, and I immediately found myself immersed in his life and emotions.  A reader who is more contemplative will likely get even more out of the book than I did.  But regardless of which type of reader you are, The Master Planets will take you on an emotional ride that you won't quickly forget.

10/04/2008

I work with a great community of people...

Category Everything Else

As part of my Articles of Interest project, I'm going back through over a year of tagged RSS entries to pull out things that mean a lot to me.  What quickly became interesting is how often certain names and blogs appeared repeatedly.  Chris Blatnick shows up quite often, and I think everything Andre Guirard ever blogged has been copied over.  :)  All in all, I think most of the Notes community makes an appearance (or 10) in my new repository.

Thanks to everyone who shares what they know.  It's this collaboration that makes us so strong and freaky-smart!

10/04/2008

So do you keep an electronic "Articles of Interest" database?

Category Everything Else

I finally spent some time this week starting a project that's been gnawing away at me for awhile.  It started when I looked at my Starred category on Google Reader and found there were over 500 entries out there.  Some items were Notes tips I wanted to look at later, some were great posts on public speaking and presentations, tech how-to's, cool software...  you get the idea.  But listed as they are in a single category in Google Reader, they might as well have been missing in action.  I decided I had to fix that.

My new "Articles of Interest" application is nothing more than a database in Notes based on the Personal Journal template.  Going through my starred entries starting in June of 2007, I pasted the title link, date, and content of the RSS feed into the body of the document, added the title and date to the fields up on top, and then categorized it by name of poster/site and the type of content (Notes Tips, Cool Software, Personal Improvement, etc.)  I'm up to May of 2008 now, and in the next couple of days I hope to have my Starred category count down to zero.  Then I can use this new database to see what I actually have, and try out some of the tips I had forgotten about.

If you don't have something like this, you should really consider doing so.  You may only have two or three entries a week you want to keep, but those keepers could be what bails you out of a problem down the road.

(Yes, I know you can always search via Google to refind the information.  But if you forgot the tip existed in the first place, what's going to jog your memory to know what to be looking for?  I'd rather just quickly peruse a view to find it.)

10/02/2008

Book Review - The Overflowing Brain: Information Overload and the Limits of Working Memory by Torkel Klingberg

Category Book Review Torkel Klingberg The Overflowing Brain: Information Overload and the Limits of Working Memory

A picture named M2

I received a copy of The Overflowing Brain: Information Overload and the Limits of Working Memory by Torkel Klingberg via the Amazon Vine review program recently.  Working in the tech industry, I'm all too aware of the massive amount of information we're exposed to each day.  What I was hoping for was an understandable, practical guide for dealing with it.  Instead, the book turned out to be tilted more towards the academic side of the equation, citing study after study about how and why (we think) brains work as they do.  Throughout the whole book, I kept feeling like I was missing a thread, a common theme that would tie together all the chapters into some unifying message.  I'm the first to admit that subtlety is not my strong point, but I'm not sure that unifying message ever appeared for me.

Contents:
Introduction - The Stone Age Brain Meets the Information Flood; The Information Portal; The Mental Workbench; Models of Working Memory; The Brain and the Magical Number Seven; Simultaneous Capacity and Mental Bandwidth; Wallace's Paradox; Blain Plasticity; Does ADHD Exist?; A Cognitive Gym; The Everyday Exercising of Our Mental Muscles; Computer Games

As close as I can determine, Klingsberg feels that our short-term, or "working", memory is what limits us.  We seem genetically wired to retain about seven (plus or minus 2) pieces of data at a time.  Then if the information isn't pushed to long-term memory, it's pretty well gone.  I keep trying to think about how this book would have been more useful to me, since I seemed to disconnect with it on a practical side.  I could see this book being used in a psychology class as a textbook of sorts, each chapter spurring discussion of the concepts in that particular chapter.  The large number of studies cited could provide additional material.  With that frame of reference, I think I might have been much more open to the writing.  But as a layman's book, I'm not sure this did anything but add to my already overloaded mind.

10/02/2008

The Workspace Picture meme...

Category Everything Else

Since my home workspace is a real mess (and doesn't have any cool toys compared to the rest of you), you get to see my Cubeville location instead...

A picture named M2

A picture named M3

It's quite amazing how much cleaner this space is than my home space...

Actually, it's quite sad...  sigh...

10/01/2008

Book Review - Fixation by Mark Schorr

Category Book Review Mark Schorr Fixation

A picture named M2

I followed up the book Borderline with Mark Schorr's next novel in the Brian Hanson series, Fixation.  As with Borderline, I loved the setting of the story in my home town.  Also, the suspense of being stalked and harassed at each turn was good enough to keep me turning pages.  I don't think I was quite as enthralled this time as with his first novel, but it was an entertaining read.

Hanson's semi-love interest, Louise Parker, leads a failed raid on a white supremacist compound.  The raid goes sour as someone tips off the group ahead of time, and the FBI team are sitting ducks.  As with most failed efforts like this, someone has to take the blame, and Parker appears to be on the hook for this one.  That might not be so bad, except she also has her wallet and badge stolen while on administrative paid leave.  This starts a series of harassing events, like stalking videos sent to her home from a video rental account...  phone calls with strange individuals...  her face photoshopped on another woman's body for a lewd adult website.  The FBI investigators are starting to feel that perhaps she's going off the deep end, and that she really has something to hide (like the off-shore account she didn't know she had).  Hanson wants to help her out and be there for her, but she's not even convinced that he might not be behind all of this harassment.  She's seen Hanson when he detaches into his Vietnam soldier role, and she knows he's quite capable of flipping out and losing control.  He's got his own problems in addition to Parker's, as it appears the same people after her are also trying to take him out of the picture.  The question becomes who will crack first...  Hanson, Parker, or the stalkers?

The pacing was pretty good in Fixation, but there was much more personal drama between Hanson and Parker as they struggled with trust issues.  There's also tension on the reader's part as two apparently separate people are out to settle scores with Parker, and it's unclear until the very end exactly what is going on.  I don't expect every novel to hit on all cylinders, as writing a great story isn't easy.  Although I liked Borderline better than Fixation, I'm looking forward to additional installments in this series should they appear.

10/01/2008

Book Review - Txtng: The Gr8 Db8 by David Crystal

Category Book Review David Crystal Txtng: The Gr8 Db8

A picture named M2

As part of the Amazon Vine review program, I requested and received a copy of David Crystal's book Txtng: The Gr8 Db8.  Being the proud owner of an iPhone with two older children, I've done my share of texting with them and others in my circle of friends.  While the book does do a good job in examining the pros and cons of texting on our language skills, it was far too academic for my liking.  Conversely, if you were teaching a class (or were interested) in linguistics, there'd be a lot in this book that would fascinate you.  Guess it all depends on your reason and/or expectations for reading it.

Contents:
The hype about texting; How weird is texting?; What makes texting distinctive?; What do they do it?; Who texts?; What do they text about?; How do other languages do it?; Why all the fuss?; Glossary; Appendix A - English text abbreviations; Appendix B - Text abbreviations in eleven languages; Index

Crystal is a professor of linguistics in the United Kingdom, and he's spent considerable time and effort studying the subject of text messaging.  His main argument is with those who decry "text speak" as the death knell of proper writing skills.  He reaches the exact opposite conclusion in his opinion.  The ability to shorten, abbreviate, and combine sounds to create written communication has been around as long as language itself, and the core skills involved in creating text messages are the same as a person would use for any other written form of communication.  The hysteria of those who don't understand it is countered by solid statistics and research provided by Crystal.  In fact, there are entire competitions devoted to creating poetry that is restricted to the 140 character limit often imposed on SMS text messages.  While some win the contest with full words (just not very many of them), others push the boundaries of texting and create emotional works using sentences like "txtin iz messin, mi headn'me englis".  While not a "language" that would be officially recognized as such, it's difficult to believe that someone couldn't figure out exactly what was meant in those lines.  And really, that's the goal of communication.

I found some of the material interesting, as well as his non-gloom-and-doom attitude quite refreshing.  But it bogged down at times when it came to detailed statistics about who does what most often.  A serious student of linguistics might be interested in knowing how women and men differ in their texting, or how the different age groups might approach it.  But from my techo-geek perspective, I found myself in rapid skim mode more often than not.  I feel that your enjoyment of the book will be based on proper expectations.  If you want a scholarly approach to the subject backed up by research, it's great.  If you're more interested in a "hacker's" view of texting, then you may be left wanting...

09/30/2008

Book Review - Billy: The Untold Story of a Young Billy Graham and the Test of Faith that Almost Changed Everything

Category Book Review Bill McKay Ken Abraham Billy: The Untold Story of a Young Billy Graham and the Test of Faith that Almost Changed Everything

A picture named M2

I recently was sent a manuscript for the book Billy: The Untold Story of a Young Billy Graham and the Test of Faith that Almost Changed Everything by Bill McKay and Ken Abraham.  I've read and reviewed other books about Billy Graham, but not any that restricted itself to the beginning stages of his ministry told in narrative form.  This book is meant to coincide with a soon-to-be-released movie titled "Billy: The Early Years."  In the book, the authors tell the story of Billy Graham's ministry through the eyes of his one-time partner, Charles Templeton.  The scene is a hospital, where Templeton is living out his last days with Alzheimer's.  An aging reporter, eager to revive her flagging career, has been told to interview Templeton in order to get some dirt on Graham...  be it scandals, hypocrisy, or whatever.  She sets up in the hospital room with a camera crew and starts the interview, trying to get Templeton to turn on his former colleague.  But much to her dismay and amazement, Templeton's cynicism over what Graham believes and preaches is not enough to overcome the fact that he can find no fault in Graham.  He knows that however much he belittles the beliefs he used to share, he can't deny that Graham has accomplished far more that should have been humanly possible given his background and skills.

The flow of the story starts back in Graham's teen years, before he became a Christian.  After going forward at a tent-style revival, he decides that he wants to attend a bible college and move into some sort of ministry work.  Much to his shock and surprise, he's asked to speak in front of a church.  Terrified, he covers the breath of his Bible knowledge in rapid-fire fashion...  taking an entire seven minutes.  But there's something there, and he's asked to speak in more locations, eventually leading to a full-time pastor position.  Along the way, he meets and marries his wife Ruth, who gives up her dream of becoming a missionary to Tibet to support Graham in his ministry.  As his preaching and evangelism starts to pick up speed, he's eventually teamed with Charles Templeton, an extremely popular and well-known evangelist at the time.  They seem to make a good team, but Templeton's life is getting much darker...

Templeton is starting to question his faith, and it comes to a head at the end of World War II.  He sees a newsreel showing Holocaust survivors, and decides he can't believe in a loving God any more.  Graham is crushed by his decision to leave the ministry and study at Princeton.  This turning away by Templeton starts Graham down the path of questioning his own commitment. The story moves to a moment in time where Graham struggles with his fears and doubts by himself out in the woods at a conference.  The ultimate outcome of that war would end up changing the face of world evangelism as we know it.

Unlike some of the other books on Graham that attempts to analyze all his works and actions, this is a more story-driven treatment of his early life.  I'm sure that once the movie is released, I'll find that this book follows very closely to the timing and direction of the film.  Still, it's an inspirational look at someone who has committed everything to what he believes.  It also shows that particular moments in time can have ramifications *far* beyond what one might expect at the moment.  

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Thomas "Duffbert" Duff

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