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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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06/29/2008

Book Review - Designing Web Navigation: Optimizing the User Experience by James Kalbach

Category Book Review James Kalbach Designing Web Navigation: Optimizing the User Experience

A picture named M2

The ability to navigate a web site can make or break your user's experience.  I learned far more than I thought even existed in the book Designing Web Navigation: Optimizing the User Experience by James Kalbach.  It's obviously more than just putting a list of links down the left side of the screen...

Contents:
Part 1 - Foundations of Web Navigation: Introducing Web Navigation; Understanding Navigation; Mechanisms of Navigation; Types of Navigation; Labeling Navigation
Part 2 - A Framework for Navigation Design: Evaluation; Analysis; Architecture; Layout; Presentation
Part 3 - Navigation in Special Contexts: Navigation and Search; Navigation and Social Tagging Systems; Navigation and Rich Web Applications
References; Index

If you tend to think more like a developer than a designer, then you pretty much think that a list of navigation links are all you need.  Uh, no...  Kalbach has compiled a wealth of information here that spans both the theory and the practice of web navigation.  Rather than just say "do this, this, and this", he starts off with the foundational theory behind how people think about getting around a web site.  Once that's presented, you have the proper grounding to start looking at particular types.  The chapter on navigation mechanisms lays out all the different options, such as step-type navigation, paging-type navigation, tree navigation, and more.  Classifying the different types in your mind helps to figure out when you might want to consider options like tabbed navigation over breadcrumb trails.  By the time you've gone through the book, there's little you haven't covered on the topic.

I also appreciated the way the book is designed.  O'Reilly went with a full-color layout, which means that all the websites Kalbach uses for examples accurately reflect his points.  Black and white just wouldn't cut it here.  Also, the edges of the pages are color-coded by chapter, so it makes it very easy to find the particular chapter you're looking for.  I always have a better feeling about a design book when the book's design is high quality.  In this case, I felt very good...

This really should be on the reading list of anyone who designs websites that go more than one page deep.  Not only will you design better sites, but your users will thank you.


06/29/2008

Book Review - Designing the Moment: Web Interface Design Concepts in Action By Robert Hoekman, Jr.

Category Book Review Robert Hoekman Jr. Designing the Moment: Web Interface Design Concepts in Action

A picture named M2

Since I'm starting to pay more attention to user-interface concepts and design, I felt this book was required reading for me...  Designing the Moment: Web Interface Design Concepts in Action by Robert Hoekman, Jr.  Besides offering a number of excellent concepts, he does so in a manner not often seen in other books.  He tells you what he was thinking and how he got to that decision point.  That's the kind of insight I need to improve my skills.

Contents:
Part 1 - Getting Oriented: Designing the First Impression; Showing Your Personality; Zen and the Art of Navigation; All Links Are Not Created Equal; Getting Your Head Out of the Tag Cloud
Part 2 - Learning: Surfacing the Trigger Words; Labeling the Interface; Beyond Words and Onto Video
Part 3 - Searching: Making Suggestions; Getting Through the Results; Refining Your Search
Part 4 - Diving In: Standardizing Playback Controls; Nailing Form Layout; Conquering the Wizard; Going the Extra Mile with Inline Validation; Simplifying Long Forms; Getting Them Signed In; Counting Characters
Part 5 - Participating: Building Profiles; Editing; Making Social Connections; Designing the Obvious Blog; Inviting Discussion; Getting a Good Rating
Part 6 - Managing Information: Making RSS Meaningful; Tagging It; Getting Reorganized with Drag-and-Drop; Managing Interruptions with System Notifications
Part 7 - Moving On: Signing Off; Dusting Off Dusty Users; Letting Them Go
Conclusion: The Keys to Great Design

Hoekman is well-known for design concepts, and I tend to like what he comes up with.  The difference here over other books is that he starts off with a request or issue to solve, and then takes you through his mental process that got him to the resulting solution.  For instance, All Links Are Not Created Equal...  The need was to create a list of links for a call-center intranet page.  The idea was to somehow communicate the current issues affecting the users, in chronological order, maximum five links.  I would take the normal route (which is where he started) of just putting the last five links out there.  But to communicate chronological order, that wouldn't work.  Then he placed numbers in front of each link (1 to 5).  OK, but still "flat" as he termed it.  He started trying to incorporate a concept he learned about called "ambient signifiers", or ways to communicate information based on the way it's displayed.  This led him to drop the numbers and use decreasing font sizes to show order and importance.  Much better, but he still wanted more.  He then stumbled on an "aging" technique whereby he would not only decrease the font size, but also lighten the text color the further down you went.  This combination communicated both importance and age, and was exactly the solution he was looking for.  Notice that he didn't go into it with a preconceived "spec" as to how it would work.  But through his mental conversation, you see both how he got there and why he made the designs that he did.

I'm perfectly happy admitting I don't know it all when it comes to design concepts.  But what I don't like is to read "do it this way because I said so" material that doesn't explain why.  Hoekman makes that rare jump beyond "why" and reveals the imperfections and dead-ends before you get there.  As such, this is one of the most valuable design books I've read.

06/28/2008

Book Review - The Back of the Napkin: Solving Problems and Selling Ideas with Pictures by Dan Roam

Category Book Review Dan Roam The Back of the Napkin: Solving Problems and Selling Ideas with Pictures

A picture named M2

Most business presentations rely on fancy graphs, professional graphics, and slick tools to get their point across.  But sometimes, the most effective way to make your case is to whip out a napkin and start drawing.  Dan Roam covers that subject in the book The Back of the Napkin: Solving Problems and Selling Ideas with Pictures.  This opened my eyes to many different concepts that I somewhat took for granted, as well as giving me a framework for getting better at the whiteboard...

Contents:
Part 1 - Introductions - Anytime, Anyone, Anywhere - Solving Problems with Pictures: A Whole New Way of Looking at Business; Which Problems, Which Pictures, and Who is "We"?; A Gamble We Can't Lose - The Four Steps of Visual Speaking
Part 2 - Discovering Ideas - Looking Better, Seeing Sharper, Imagining Further - Tools and Rules for Good Visual Thinking: No Thanks, Just Looking; The Six Ways of Seeing; The SQVID - A Practical Lesson in Applied Imagination; Frameworks for Showing
Part 3 - Developing Ideas - The Visual Thinking MBA - Putting Visual Thinking to Work: Showing and The Visual Thinking MBA; Who Are Our Customers? - Pictures That Solve a Who/What Problem; How Many Are Buying? - Pictures That Solve a How Much Problem; Where Is Our Business? - Pictures That Solve a Where Problem; When Can We Fix Things? - Pictures That Solve a When Problem; How Can We Improve Our Business? - Pictures That Solve a How Problem; Why Should We Even Bother? - Pictures That Solve a Why Problem
Part 4 - Selling Ideas - It's Showtime; Everything I Know About Business I Learned In Show-And-Tell; Drawing Conclusions
Acknowledgments; Appendix A - The Science of Visual Thinking; Appendix B - Resources for Visual Thinkers

Probably the most famous example of this type of learning is the Southwest Airlines story.  Herb Kelleher and Rollin King were discussing a failed airline of King's.  King took a napkin, drew a triangle on it, and labeled each corner Dallas, San Antonio, and Houston.  This flight plan for a small regional airline broke a number of "rules", and the result of this simple drawing became Southwest Airlines four years later.  It would have been "normal" to present an idea like this with PowerPoint slides, full color documents, and endless spreadsheets showing the numbers.  But the most effective way of illustrating the concept was a simple napkin and pen.  Roam has studied the science behind this deceptively simple idea and shows how nearly any idea can not only be communicated in this fashion, but most often can be communicated more succinctly than any other method.  The act of drawing and simplifying concepts draws people in and puts life behind your message in a way that sterile professional graphics can't do.

Rather than just say "draw more", Roam creates a framework that allows you to figure out what type of picture applies.  The problem is one of the following: who/what (portrait), how much (chart), where (map), when (timeline), how (flowchart), and why (plot).  Within each of those frameworks, you have five options of what to show (the SQVID method): S (simple > elaborate), Q (quality > quantity), V (vision > execution), I (individual > comparison), and D (change > as-is).  Once you understand these different conditions, the type of picture becomes clear, and then it's a matter of drawing the information.  Keep in mind we're not talking about elaborate illustrations...  stick figures and simple shapes will do.  And that's a good thing, as "art" is not my forte...  :)

This is another one of those books that will forever change the way you think about sharing information with others in a business or professional setting.  This doesn't replace high-end, quality proposals or presentations...  Instead, it simplifies and clarifies the message you have, and allows you to share it in a fraction of the time you might need for a formal, text/picture/word-laden meeting.  This ranks right up with Presentation Zen in terms of books that change the way I work, and did so immediately.

06/28/2008

Show this to your kids as an example of why they shouldn't do drugs...

Category Humor

Classic...

06/28/2008

Glad to see .docx formats taking over... NOT! :)

Category Microsoft

I received an email yesterday from a coordinator of a program that Susan and I were participating in.  In the email was an attachment of the course evaluations.  Apparently the leader is running the latest and greatest version of Word, and sent the attachment out in the .docx format.  I tried opening it in the version of Word I have running on this machine (2002), and no luck.  Every option it gave me produced unreadable text.  Granted, I didn't try very hard to get around it either.  :)

This morning we get a follow-up email...  Apparently everyone was having problems reading his attachment, so he just embedded the results in the email.

All hail OOXML!  :)

06/28/2008

Book Review - Declassified: 50 Top-Secret Documents That Changed History by Thomas B. Allen

Category Book Review Thomas B. Allen Declassified: 50 Top-Secret Documents That Changed History

A picture named M2

Secrets are the currency by which countries maintain control of their borders and war with other nations.  In the book Declassified: 50 Top-Secret Documents That Changed History, Thomas B. Allen lists 50 documents, once secret but now declassified, that had large impacts on people, countries, and the world.  Throughout, I kept wondering how many more documents are hidden that would have the same effect these days.  My guess is plenty...

Contents:
Part 1 - Secrets of War: Spying on the Armada; Washington Finds a Spy; Benedict Arnold Becomes a Spy; The Lady Is a Spy; A Golden Export to Canada; T.R. Remembers the Maine; A Telegram's Special Delivery; The Man Who Started a War; Eavesdropping on Roosevelt and Churchill; Planning the "Final Solution"; Seeking Justice for Saboteurs; Stalin Approves a War; The Pentagon Papers' Legacy; 16 Troublesome Words
Part 2 - Double Agents, Turncoats, and Traitors: Captain Henry's $50,000 Letters; Lincoln's Double Agent; Whose Ace of Spies?; The Double Agent's Dog; The Spy in the Tunnel; The Pumpkin Papers
Part 3 - Counterintelligence - Spy vs. Spy; The Knight Was a Spy; The Million-Document Spy; The Soviets' Key Man; The Spy Drove a Jaguar; The FBI Mole
Part 4 - A Bodyguard of Lies: George Washington's Lies; The Trick That Won Midway; The Star of Double-Cross; "A Diversionary Maneuver"; "Mincemeat Swallowed Whole"; Broadcasting Believable Lies; The Game Against England
Part 5 - Espionage Incidents: Lee's Lost Order; Papers from a Corpse; The Hollow Nickel
Part 6 - In Defense of the Realm: The Beer Barrel Letters; A Map for the Mideast; An Ambassador's Doubts; Secret Notes at Yalta; A Package in the Snow
Part 7 - The Secret State: A Secret Request to Congress; An Enduring Lie; The Dreyfus Affair; The FBI and Trotsky; Tap, Tap, Tap; Bombs of a New Type; The Magic Messages; The Golden Age of Soviet Espionage; The Family Jewels; For the President's Eyes Only
Acknowledgments; Bibliography; Selected Internet Sites; Illustrations Credits; Index

Rather than try and restrict himself to a particular country or timeframe, Allen selects documents from a wide number of sources and time periods.  Two of the selections (Spying on the Armada and The Beer Barrel Letters) date from 1586 and center around the rule of Queen Elizabeth I.  On the other end of the spectrum, we have entries for 2000 and 2001 related to the forged Niger-Iraq uranium sale document (which started the Iraq war) and the 2001 briefing about Osama Bin Laden operatives planning a plane attack (fulfilled on 09/11/2001).  Reading through the chapters, you realize that information is a valuable commodity, and that it normally costs quite a bit to get it.  Perhaps it's monetary in nature to pay off the informant, or it could even be the life of the spy if they are caught in the act.  Whether driven by ideology or greed, there's always someone out there who is willing to trade information to "the other side".  

Each chapter tens to be around 3 to 5 pages long, starting off with a picture of the document/information being passed, a brief date/subject line to place it in context, and then a concise discussion of what transpired to produce the material as well as what impact it had on future events.  You could make a whole book out of most of these incidents, but this format is great for giving you an overview of why certain events in history may have transpired as they did.  I think my favorites were related to World War II and the efforts to break codes of the other side.  England had broken Germany's Enigma codes, and could in many cases anticipate the next action Germany would take.  The problem there is that if Germany thinks the codes are broken, they'll switch keys and England would be without their advantage any longer.  This dichotomy caused anguish, as England had to let some losses take place so as to keep Germany thinking that their communication encryption was still secure.  That's a hard decision to have to make time after time...

If you're at all interested in espionage, you'll likely enjoy this read...

06/25/2008

Hey! Want to get an early jump on the latest version of SuperNTF from Kevin Pettitt?

Category LotusUserGroup.org

Head on over to LotusUserGroup.org where he's giving members a jump on the download competition.  :)

06/25/2008

I stumbled across the transcript for Unify's financial conference call today...

Category IBM/Lotus Microsoft

Unify is that "wonderful" company that kept advertising in SearchDomino offering to migrate you off of that creaky old Notes infrastructure...  NOT!

Here's the conference call transcript...

And proving that Microsoft can have a million #1 priorities, here's proof that killing off Notes is still one of them:

Don McKernan – Landoak Securities

And then in your prepared comments you said that Microsoft designated this Notes issues as one of their top three priorities or something like that. Can you clarify what you mean by that?

Todd E. Wille

Well, just what it means is that over the last year, and continuing this upcoming fiscal year, they’ve got two, three or four key initiatives that really the whole company focuses on in addition to their normal goal setting. And one of those key initiatives is this whole Lotus Notes initiatives because SharePoint and Exchange and a lot of their products that are all on a collaborative environment, (a) and (b) IBM identified as one of their major competitors, those two reasons have led this to be one of the key initiatives for them as a company last year and this going forward year.

So, obviously, the point to us is that it’s great news for us to have that exposure. And it goes all the way to the top of Microsoft and all the way down, is that this initiative is important and it’s funded and that bodes well for us.

Don McKernan – Landoak Securities

You’re the only answer for them, basically, on the complex end.

Todd E. Wille

That’s correct.

I guess we can assume we're still on Microsoft's radar.  :)

06/24/2008

Book Review - Delete This at Your Peril: One Man's Hilarious Exchanges with Internet Spammers by Bob Servant

Category Book Review Bob Servant Delete This at Your Peril: One Man's Hilarious Exchanges with Internet Spammers

Come on....  admit it.  You've always wanted to jerk the chain of those spammers who try to get you to part with personal information so they can scam you out of thousands of hard-earned dollars (pounds, pesos, whatever).  Bob Servant did just that in 2007 and turned the email exchanges into the book Delete This at Your Peril: One Man's Hilarious Exchanges with Internet Spammers.  This was a funny read, gifted with Servant's bizarre sense of humor and the pathetic attempts of the scammers trying to get the information they're after.  

Contents:
Introduction - Meet Bob Servant; Editor's Note - An Overview of Spam; Lions, Gold and Confusion; Bob and the Postie; Alexandra, Bob, and Champion; Uncle Bob's African Adventure; The Sea Could Not Take Him, No Woman Could Tame Him; From Lanzhou to Willy's Chinese Palace; Bobby and Benjamin are New Friends; Peter's Pots; Acknowledgments

Each chapter consists of the email exchanges between the scammers and Servant.  The scams revolve around 419, local agents needed, and fake Russian brides.  I wish the timestamps on the emails had been preserved, as it would have been fun to see how eager these people were to accomplish their goals.  In nearly all cases, Servant is dealing with "English as second language" people, so right there you get a fair amount of amusement as they try to string together decent sentences.  But the real joy is when Servant starts to lead them down the path of his fictional life in Broughty Ferry, Scotland.  Actually, his life is real.  It's just the incidents that are way out there.  For instance...  Lions, Gold and Confusion starts with a 419 scam.  Servant tries to get his percentage of the take moved from 20% to 30%.  Once he gets 30% through a series of exchanges, he goes for 40%.  From there, he says he doesn't want the money in cash as he can't hide it from the taxman.  Instead, he wants it in diamonds and gold so he can move it through pawn shops in Lochee.  He then introduces the possibility of taking payment in livestock (like lions) for his neighbor's private zoo.  We go back and forth on the detail of the "gold lions", only to have Servant insist that he meant *real* lions.  Oh, then the lions have to talk...  he'll only accept talking lions...  or four lions, two leopards, one elephant, one alligator, two parrots, and one hedgehog...

I enjoyed this on a number of levels.  For one, Servant's Scottish culture comes through strong in both text and situation.  Having a few Scottish friends, I wasn't having a hard time seeing these crazy situations play out in my mind.  Servant's fantasy lives are so far out there, that you wonder why *anyone* would maintain the email exchange past the first couple of volleys.  I also got a kick out of seeing the spammers beg and plead for personal information, only to have Servant respond with another "day in the life" email, excuses as to why he can't comply just then, or something else completely out of the blue.  The change in the spammer's tone from accommodating to *DO THIS NOW!* was almost a given every time.  But actually, in a couple of exchanges, he calls them on the scam at the end and they actually 'fess up to it.

I wouldn't suggest that everyone start doing this to spammers, as there's always a chance that you could tick off someone or some group with the ability to do you physical harm.  I think I'll just continue to delete them as they show up.  But if you want to live vicariously through Servant, here's your chance to turn the tables.

06/21/2008

Book Review - Face to Face: Rick Sammon's Complete Guide to Photographing People by Rick Sammon

Category Book Review Rick Sammon Face to Face: Rick Sammon's Complete Guide to Photographing People

I'm about to graduate from a digital point-and-shoot to an entry level DSLR camera.  In order to create all those images that will wow my friends, I read through the book Face to Face: Rick Sammon's Complete Guide to Photographing People by Rick Sammon.  If you're looking to focus on people and faces, this book puts you in the proper mindset on how best to shoot in a way that captures more than just an image.  

Contents:
Introduction - The Camera Looks Both Ways
Part 1 - Cameras Don't Take Pictures, People Do: A Quick Look at Gear
Part 2 - Photo Philosophies: Making Pictures Versus Taking Pictures; From Head to Toe; Creating a Sense of Place; Dead Center Is Deadly; Horizontal and/or Vertical; Silence Is Deadly; Being There and Being Aware; Portraits Versus Environmental Portraits; The All-Important Background; Paying People; Dress for Success; Body Language and Hands; Seeing Eye to Eye; Choose a Location; Adding Props; Seeing Pictures Within a Picture; Adding a Person Adds Scale to a Picture; Thinking Creatively; Taking Fun Shots
Part 3 - Capturing Action; Using Reflectors; The Beauty of Using Diffusers; Garage Glamour; Daylight Fill-in Flash; The Disequilibrium Technique; The Key to a Good Profile; Photographing People in Low Light and at Night; Group Photography; Take Advantage of Backlight; Photographing Festivals; Creating a Sense of Depth
Part 4 - Indoor Photography: Rembrandt Lighting; Shooting Silhouettes; Basic Flash Techniques; Using Lighting Kits; Working with Mirrors; Photographing a Stage Show
Part 5 - Enhancing Your Pictures in Photoshop: Create a Beautiful Black-and-White Image; The Renaissance Painter Effect; Color and Black-and-White in the Same Image; From Snapshot to Artistic Image; Create the Disequilibrium Effect; Change the Shutter Speed and F-Stop; Remove Distracting Elements in a Scene; Brighten a Subject's Eyes and Smile; Basic Skin Coloring; Hand-Color a Picture; Playin' with Plug-ins
Epilog: Your Assignment - On-Location Portraiture
Index

This seems to differ somewhat from other photography books I've read in that he spends more time talking about composition and lighting rather than the technical details of exposure, f-stops, and other nitty-gritty elements.  It's not that he ignores those details, but he's more concerned about issues like framing, background, subject interaction, and telling a story.  As such, I could implement many of these techniques regardless of what camera I'm using.  Yes, there is a limitation when you can't fully control lens selection and such, but you can still using lighting and composition to get memorable pictures.  As the title indicates, Sammon is focusing (no pun intended) on the techniques involved in shooting people rather than scenery or special effects.  While I don't expect to be an expert a day after the new camera arrives, I now realize that shooting people is something that says as much about you the photographer as it does about the person being shot.  I'm looking forward to working through the "lessons", which is how each chapter is laid out.  I also got a much better appreciation for the role of Photoshop in getting that image that looks professional.  I have so much to learn...

About the only thing I didn't care for in the book is that a significant number of pictures in the book are from a select few photo shoots that he did.  For instance, Silence is Deadly introduces an attractive woman with different facial expressions based on how the photographer was talking with her.  But she then shows up repeatedly in staged old-time Western shots, and you learn that she's a model.  In that case, the photographer definitely has a subject who can provide more than a spur-of-the-moment series of images.  The other western shots carried the old-time saloon theme, and they looked more staged than I would have expected.  On the other hand, his African tribe shots are very real.  I just don't think I would have used them as much or as often as they were used to illustrate the different points.

Even with that minor nit, there's a lot to learn from this book for people like myself who are trying to kick up their skills to a new level.

06/21/2008

Book Review - The Offsite: A Leadership Challenge Fable by Robert H. Thompson

Category Book Review Robert H. Thompson The Offsite: A Leadership Challenge Fable

There's obviously no dearth of books on leadership methodologies.  But there are fewer books that take a program and package it such that you see yourself in it.  Robert H. Thompson makes that jump in The Offsite: A Leadership Challenge Fable.  He uses the storytelling method to take you through a philosophy in a way that makes application so much easier, because you've "seen" it work.  

Contents:
Part 1 - Arrivals: The Revolution Begins; I'm Perfect, You're Perfect; The Lone Stranger; The Games Begin
Part 2 - Connections: Yoda Is My Gardener; Light My Fire; Suck or Succeed; Pyramids Amid Denial
Part 3 - Sessions: It's No Secret; A Grenade for Your Thoughts; The Perfect Fall; Practice Makes Perfect; Burn Baby Burn; To Dream, Perhaps; Our Never-Ending Story; A Rope, A Hope; Fire Away!; The Brainstory; Embrace the Struggle; What's Real Matters!
Part 4 - Separate Ways: Success Is Assured; The Perfect Choice
Acknowledgments (Gratitude); The Author

The material from this book is based on The Leadership Challenge, so if you've read that book first you'll recognize the principles.  Thompson takes the five practices from The Leadership Challenge and weaves them into a story that brings it all to life:  Model The Way; Inspire A Shared Vision; Challenge The Process; Enable Others To Act; and Encourage The Heart.  In his fable, two drug companies are coming together to form some partnerships.  As with most situations similiar to this, there are culture clashes, egos, vested interests, and all the other baggage that gets picked up and displayed.  The head team decides to have an offsite retreat at a hotel in Arizona in order to teach the Leadership Challenge principles to all the players, in hopes that the partnership will get off on the right foot.  You hear the challenges and problems from the perspective of the facilitators, the executives sponsoring the meeting, a few managers who want nothing to do with all this "group hug" stuff, and the people who are tasked with actually doing the work.  Along the way, people change, beliefs are examined and challenged, and hidden leadership capabilities start to emerge that had been buried in the frantic day-to-day pressures of keeping up with work.

Aside from being a well-written story, Thompson's style is far more effective than most leadership books.  What works on paper doesn't always translate well to practice.  Granted, when you write a fable, you can have it turn out however you want, and there's no guarantee that your particular situation will mirror the one in the book (both pre- and post-offsite).  But still, all the typical personalities you find in a company are here, and you get a chance to experience the obstacles as well as the victories.

If you're not using any leadership framework, you could start here with a solid chance of success.  And if you're already using some framework, reading The Offsite might help you to tweak some behaviors to be even more effective.

06/21/2008

Book Review - Panic in Level 4: Cannibals, Killer Viruses, and Other Journeys to the Edge of Science by Richard Preston

Category Book Review Richard Preston Panic in Level 4: Cannibals Killer Viruses and Other Journeys to the Edge of Science

This sounded like a great idea when I found it on the shelf at the library...  Panic in Level 4: Cannibals, Killer Viruses, and Other Journeys to the Edge of Science by Richard Preston.  I opened the book, expecting to have around 200 pages of talk about killer viruses and the war against them.  Instead, I got a seemly random assortment of stories that mostly bore little resemblance to the "Panic in Level 4" title.  I almost felt like a victim of bait-and-switch.

Contents:
Introduction - Adventures in Nonfiction Writing; The Mountains of Pi; A Death in the Forest; The Search for Ebola; The Human Kabbalah; The Lost Unicorn; The Self-Cannibals; Glossary; Acknowledgments

The title actually comes from the Introduction chapter.  It's there that the author relates his story of being allowed to enter a level 4 biohazard room as part of his background research as a writer.  This is something that normally is never allowed, but a few rules were bent and he learned what it's like to be working with viruses that can kill you 100% of the time.  Had the whole book stayed in that vein, it would have been great.  But then Preston launched into an assortment of stories that, in my opinion, failed to deliver on the promise of the intro and title.  

The Mountains of Pi examines two mathematicians who built their own supercomputer and dig deeply into the calculations of the value of Pi.  Not a bad story in itself, but not exactly "panic" and "level 4" excitement.  A Death in the Forest gets into how an insect infestation kills off eastern hemlock trees, and follows the people who try to prevent the deaths.  Far from riveting...  The Search for Ebola gets back to the title premise a bit, and shows how difficult it is to trace down the source of a disease that has no cure.  The Human Kabbalah then reverts back to the "switch" category by following the story of the mapping of the human genome.  An inordinate amount of time is spent looking at the personalities involved between the two groups trying to complete the mapping, as well as the motivation and lifestyle of each.  Again, perhaps not a bad story in itself, but off the path of expectations.  The Lost Unicorn goes into the efforts to restore the Unicorn Tapestries and the computing power needed to blend together digital images of the tapestries so that a digital record of the work is maintained.  We're not only "off the path" now, but I'm not sure there was ever a path to begin with!  The Self-Cannibals veers back towards the title, covering a syndrome known as Lesch-Nyhan where people are compelled to mutilate themselves in strange and painful ways.  It could be a book by itself, but unfortunately it's a small chapter that only helps to counterbalance the other chapters that were out in left field.

I really enjoyed Preston's other works, which capture the danger and intensity of working with killer illnesses that approach a 100% level of mortality.  Panic lacked a cohesive thread based on the title, and I was really disappointed that so many of the chapters failed to deliver on expectations.  If you come into the book knowing that it's not all about microbes and germs, you may be more forgiving on the choice of chapter subjects.  Unfortunately, I didn't, and I wasn't...

06/19/2008

Book Review - Night Witch by Jack Priest

Category Book Review Jack Priest Night Witch

The author Jack Priest was kind enough to send me another of his novels...  Night Witch.  This adheres to the Priest tradition of fast-paced horror novels that have the time slipping by quicker than you expected.  My only caveat/caution would be to read the back cover first, as it will frame what's going on.  I didn't do that, and as such spent more time wondering "why" than I should have.

The story revolves around a young girl who starts getting strange visits from a creature outside her window.  She pretty much survives on her own, as her mom is always off "dating" someone new and her dad disappeared some time back.  She starts a friendship with a boy from school who isn't very popular, but he's willing to stand up to the bullies and protect her as much as he can.  Together they try and figure out what the creature is after, as well as how to survive against its raging attacks.  The girl's father, thought to be long gone, is actually watching over her, knows what the creature is, what it wants, and is willing to die to protect her.  The action continues non-stop until a final showdown at the end, pitting man against beast.

I've purposely kept the summary vague so as to not give away too much (I hope).  From an entertainment standpoint, Night Witch was a fun read that helped pass the time as I flew overseas.  If you're prepared to go with the flow, it's great.  My only "complaint" is that the backstory of the creature remained a mystery until close to the end.  That's not necessarily bad, but I was having a few problems trying to figure out why the creature wanted to get to the girl.  If I had read the back cover first (don't know why I didn't this time), I would have had the proper context to understand what was happening a whole lot sooner.  I would have stilled liked the book either way, but I would have been less "in the dark" about the driving force behind the plot.

But even with that, Priest's book is still one I'd recommend to someone who likes the horror/thriller genre.  He's a refreshing change from the mainstream authors who normally dominate the bestseller lists.

06/18/2008

My session at ILUG2008... Moving from Plumber to Painter

Category ILUG2008

The session slides...

The text file to explain the slides...

06/18/2008

DiCaprio has *nothing* on ILUG2008...

Category ILUG2008

A picture named M2

06/18/2008

NotesGirl contemplating life...

Category ILUG2008

A picture named M2

... or beer.

06/18/2008

Thanks for the Twitter help with cameras last night, everyone...

Category Everything Else

Due to some unexpected generosity, I find myself with an Amazon gift certificate of substantial worth.  (Thanks!)  I've decided that I'm going to use this to help offset the plunge into the world of digital SLR cameras.  I was looking at a package for the Canon Digital Rebel XSi with 18-55mm lens for around $850.  But I was also pointed in the direction of the Nikon D60.  I can get that one with *two* lens (18-55mm and 55-200mm) for less than $800, and that seems to be a far better deal for someone like myself who is looking at entry level options.

I know there are a ton of really good photographers in the Lotus community, and I have no doubt there are strong Canon vs. Nikon vs. Olympus vs. whatever arguements on both sides.  But it sounds as if we're at the point of most of these cameras being very high quality, as well as being very acceptable for a photo noob like me.

I think I'll mull it over while working today, and then pull the trigger tonight.  I know I'll have to get an SD card for it (4 vs 8 gb?), and I'll probably buy a UV filter to protect the lens (those are pretty cheap also).  And with that, I think I'll have enough to launch myself on a hobby that will suck up any discretionary income I might find lying around.  :)

06/17/2008

Gmail contextual ads FAIL

Category Humor

Found in my Gmail contextual ads about five minutes ago...

A picture named M2

06/16/2008

Book Review - Chicago Assassin: The Life and Legend of "Machine Gun" Jack McGurn and the Chicago Beer Wars of the Roaring Twenties by Richard J. Shmelter

Category Book Review Richard J. Shmelter Chicago Assassin: The Life and Legend of "Machine Gun" Jack McGurn and the Chicago Beer Wars of the Roaring Twenties

How quickly we forget the reality of the "good old days"...  That thought kept going through my mind as I read Chicago Assassin: The Life and Legend of "Machine Gun" Jack McGurn and the Chicago Beer Wars of the Roaring Twenties by Richard J. Shmelter.  This is an excellent biography of a major crime figure during the days of Prohibition, and Shmelter captures both the personalities and sentiments of that period in American history.

Contents:
Innocence Interrupted; Innocence Lost; "Noble Experiment, " Life-changing Decision; Chicago's Underworld Rises; Terrific Timing - Terrible Tool; Gunning for Gennas, Amutuna Gets the Hook; "Joe Batters" and "Momo"; Vengeance, Conflict, Exodus; Capone vs. Weiss - Round One; Capone vs. Weiss - Knockout Blow; On Top of the World; Aiello Threatens the Empire; The Joker; McGurn Has the Last Laugh; Close Calls; Jack Meets Louise - Frankie Meets His Maker; Return to Chicago, Unrest in the Unione; Violent Valentine; Aftermath of Carnage; The "Blonde Alibi"; The Walls Begin to Crumble; The Empire Descends; Wedding Bells, Al Goes Away; Vindication, Alienation; The Comet Vanishes; Whatever Became of ... ?; Notes; Bibliography; Index

Shmelter starts McGurn's story back in Italy, when his parents met and decided to emigrate to America.  Vincenzo Gibaldi, aka Jack McGurn, was a typical kid raised in Brooklyn by immigrant parents, but his life was forever altered at the age of five when his father was gunned down by two men who mistook him for a rival gang leader.  McGurn's mother remarried and Jack appeared to be a model son, but he was plotting his revenge for the death of his father.  McGurn tracked down the killers and assassinated them in cold blood, starting him on a path defined by the ability and willingness to kill anyone as a hired assassin.  This path was cast in stone when his second father was also gunned down by gang members over the sale of sugar to other gangs for the production of bootleg liquor.  He started to work for Al Capone's organization, and quickly rose up the ranks to become Capone's most trusted bodyguard and triggerman.

As Prohibition continued and the Chicago Beer Wars grew more heated, shootouts among rival gangs became commonplace.  The Thompson submachine gun, or Tommy gun as it was nicknamed, was the weapon of choice for gangsters, and McGurn could handle one with the best of them.  Capone used McGurn both as a planner and as a triggerman, and soon McGurn was living the life of a high-profile gangster, complete with fancy clothes, loads of money, and beautiful women.  But through all of this, he had to be aware of the fact that he was a constant target of rival gangs, and his life could be snuffed out at any time.  The downhill slide for both Capone and McGurn started with the Valentines Day Massacre.  That slaughter changed the public's perception  about organized crime, and government officials started to crack down hard on those groups.  Although it was never proven that McGurn actually took part in the killing, the general feeling was that he and Capone had orchestrated the whole thing.  When Capone was convicted of tax evasion and sent to prison, McGurn no longer had the protection he was used to, and the new leader, Frank Nitti, took his revenge on McGurn and tossed him out of the organization.  The Depression, constant police harassment, and failed business ventures took their toll, and McGurn was reduced to a shadow of his former glory.  And even that shadow came to an end when three unknown assassins tracked him down to a bowling alley and ended his life in a hail of bullets.  A fitting end to a person who lived his life gunning down others.

Apart from the fact that Shmelter writes a compelling narrative, he also captures the harsh reality of the Roaring Twenties.  I kept thinking that we tend to look back at those times as the "good old days" and think our level of criminal activity and corruption is unprecedented.  In reality, things were as bad if not worse back then, and all we're doing is repeating history over and over.  I would recommend this book on a number of levels, ranging from a fascinating read to a sobering look at our past.  In terms of "recreational reading", this is one of the best books I've read this year.

06/15/2008

Book Review - Clawed Back from the Dead by John F. Rooney

Category Book Review John F. Rooney Clawed Back from the Dead

On a recent trip, I took a review copy of the book Clawed Back from the Dead by John F. Rooney.  I've read one other book by this author, and I thought it showed promise.  Unfortunately, I don't think that promise has been delivered upon.  Even taking into account that Clawed Back is a sequel to a book I haven't read, this book left a lot to be desired.

Denny Delaney is a cop who has been dealing with a number of personal issues after a confrontation with a terrorist named Felix the Cat.  After killing the guy in a subway tunnel showdown, he thought that part of his life was done with.  But now, there's a very good chance that the dead person in the tunnel wasn't Felix.  Members of a film crew shooting a movie about the original crime are being killed off one by one, and the signs point to Felix being the killer.  That is confirmed when Felix starts calling Delaney and launching into rants about various political issues.  The rest of the story revolves around Delaney's search for the killer, as well as Delaney's frustration with the politics of the various law enforcement agencies trying to solve the case.

When the story started out, I was thinking I was in for a good read.  The premise sounded interesting, and I wasn't having too much of an issue with the fact that I hadn't read the first novel.  But the longer I read, the more frustrated I became.  I like Rooney's ability to construct a sentence and scene.  But the plot...  Months would go by with no activity on the case, and no real indication that the reader had jumped forward in time.  There were also incidents that should have been critical to the story, but Rooney just threw them away with little explanation and some unrealistic dialogue.  But there were two things that really set me off.  The first thing is how Felix uses his conversations to rail against Palestinian oppression by the nation of Israel.  Yes, I would expect that from a terrorist with ties to the Middle East.  But the diatribes went on far too long, and it turned into the author's cause, not the character's.  Second, Rooney uses his prior novels (Daemon in our Dreams and Rice Queen Spy) in the story as screenplay material by one of the characters, going into detail about those stories and heaping great praise on the "excellence" of the material.  The self-promotion was much too over-the-top, and made me think that the author had a far greater opinion of his writing than others might.

I wanted to like this book...  I really did.  I could have even somewhat overlooked the plot pacing issues.  But after being bludgeoned repeatedly by the author's political views and his opinion of his own writing skills, I was ready for the book to be over far before it actually was.

06/15/2008

Book Review - 44 Scotland Street by Alexander McCall Smith

Category Book Review Alexander McCall Smith 44 Scotland Street

A very good friend of mine gave me a copy of 44 Scotland Street by Alexander McCall Smith for my birthday this year.  As the story is set in Edinburgh Scotland, I figured it was only appropriate that I should read it while I was visiting over there.  I'll be the first to admit that this book will have its widest appeal to those who have been to Edinburgh or live there.  Because I was surrounded by Edinburgh culture as I read, I found it great fun and a very enjoyable read.

The story takes place in a building located at, appropriately enough, 44 Scotland Street.  There are a number of rather quirky characters that live in those flats, and you follow them around as their lives intersect in various ways, shapes, and forms.  Pat is one of the main characters, and she rents one of the rooms as a place to stay during a second gap year between her secondary schooling and university.  Bruce, her flatmate, is an egocentric man about town who thinks that all women swoon as he passes by.  Below them live Bertie, the five year old "prodigy" who is pushed hard by his mother Irene to accomplish great things very early in life.  All Bertie wants to do is be a normal kid.  And finally, there's Domenica, an older lady who seems to know everyone, has a mysterious past, and offers up sage advice whether asked for or not.  While only Pat and Bruce are in the same flat, everyone is influenced by each other.  Along the way, Pat gets a job at an art gallery run by a guy who knows nothing about art.  A potentially valuable painting is "stolen" by Bruce inadvertently and it has to be tracked down through a number of buyers.  Bertie's fascinated by trains, and has been kicked out of preschool for writing Italian graffiti on the bathroom stall wall.  His mother blames the teacher for not paying enough attention to her special child, and she decides to take Bertie to therapy to get him over this "rough patch."  However, in reality she's in love with the therapist and is totally out of touch with reality vs. psychological "theory."  Domenica is trying to help Pat through her infatuation with Bruce, knowing that Bruce will end up hurting her in the end.  And through it all, you get a dose of Edinburgh culture, attitudes, and history...

The story is unique in that it was first published as a serial novel in the daily newspaper The Scotsman.  Smith began with a fair amount of material stored up to get started, but by the end he was only two or three days ahead of the next episode.  As a result, people were able to contact him and influence the flow of the story.  Americans would probably liken this book to the TV series Seinfeld, a comedy show about "nothing."  There's no plot to figure out, no crime to solve, and no lives to save here.  It's really just a slice of life where we watch some very real characters go about their daily existence trying to make sense of it all.  I'm far from knowledgeable enough to say whether Smith's view of Edinburgh is spot on for how the city thinks and functions.  But I can say that reading 44 Scotland Street while I was actually "on location" made it seem very real and entertaining.  Enough so that I plan on checking to see if our local library here in the states has the follow-on installments of the series...

06/15/2008

Book Review - Dead Heat by Joel C. Rosenberg

Category Book Review Joel C. Rosenberg Dead Heat

This is one of those books that makes you hope and pray that fact doesn't follow fiction again...  Dead Heat by Joel C. Rosenberg.  Rosenberg's previous novels have been remarkably accurate in terms of terror acts occurring in ways very similar to what he wrote in a storyline.  If that trend follows again, then 9/11 will look like child's play by comparison...

The main action line involves the discovery of a potential plot to kill the president at a political convention where he's giving a speech.  There are few details to go on, but security is convinced they've done as much as they could do to protect him.  That is, until the nuclear missiles are launched from container ships right off our own shores.  And it's not just directed at the president, but at a number of major cities such as Washington DC, Seattle, Manhattan, as well as Los Angeles.  Based on saber-rattling that went on right before the attack, the new president is convinced that China is to blame and wants to launch a full-scale retaliation.  But if that assessment is wrong, then the world will be plunged into a nuclear nightmare.  Obviously every nation in the world has a vested interest in making sure this situation doesn't get out of hand, but there are a few murky players in the background who are all watching this unfold according to a larger plan.

Rosenberg writes novels that examine current day events in light of Biblical prophecy.  I personally find them very well written, and he has a frightfully high track record on plots and stories that end up becoming fact all too quickly after the book is published.  There are a series of books that use the characters found in Dead Heat, and you'll get more color and flavor if you can start back at the beginning of the series before you read this one.  There is a strong evangelical message woven into the story, much like the Left Behind series.  But in contract to Left Behind, Rosenberg isn't milking the story for every last drop.  This is an enjoyable and thought-provoking read, and I look forward to the next (final?) installment from him.

06/14/2008

Book Review - London's Secret Tubes by Andrew Emmerson and Tony Beard

Category Book Review Andrew Emmerson Tony Beard London's Secret Tubes

I was visiting friends in Edinburgh, Scotland last week, and I found the book London's Secret Tubes by Andrew Emmerson and Tony Beard on their bookshelf.  Rather than read any of the books I brought with me, I was immediately hooked on this one.  I was transported back to the early to mid-1900's, when an entire nation was concerned with day-to-day survival in the midst of ongoing wars and attacks.  

The authors do an excellent job in tracing the history of the London tube system, both for transportation and supply/communication purposes.  While originally built with those purposes in mind, they quickly became the focus of England's existence during the world wars.  Since they were deep underground, they had the potential to serve as temporary shelters once bombing raids started over the city of London.  In addition, there were a number of underground tubes that were highly restricted and used as government command centers to run the war efforts.  Emmerson and Beard are quite capable of sifting fact from fiction, so as to give an accurate history without resorting to rumors or vague conspiracy theories to hype the material.  I think what struck me most about the stories is that the reality of the situation was far different than the romanticized image you often get in the movies or novels.  Conditions were cramped and unsanitary, opinions on how best to utilize the shelters were mixed, and it was not a given fact that you were going to be able to use these shelters whenever you wanted.  As common as it is to portray those times as ones where everyone sacrificed for the greater good, the reality is that people acted like people, looking out for their own interests in many cases.  

Lest I give the impression that the book *only* deals with wartime usage, the book does cover non-war usage as well as more recent uses of existing sites.  But if you're at all interested in World War 2 history, that's the part of the book that will grab your focus.  I was sorry when I got to the end of the book, as it was quite enjoyable and interesting...

06/14/2008

Book Review - Samurai: The Weapons and Spirit of the Japanese Warrior by Clive Sinclaire

Category Book Review Clive Sinclaire Samurai: The Weapons and Spirit of the Japanese Warrior

I happened to run across the book Samurai: The Weapons and Spirit of the Japanese Warrior by Clive Sinclaire at the library, and it caught my eye.  I've long been fascinated by Japanese culture, and I thought this would be an interesting read related to the true essence of a samurai's existence.  It's not the most riveting material I've ever read, but it's definitely comprehensive and valuable if you are deeply interested in Japanese weaponry for historical or collection purposes.

Contents:
What is a Samurai?; The Samurai's Armour; A Brief history of Japanese Swords; The Sword of the Samurai (Nihon-to); Polearms (Yari, Naginata, and Nagamaki); Archery (Yumi and Ya); Guns of the Samurai (Tanegashima); Glossary; Bibliography; Index

The vast amount of the material here deals with the sword, the most common and important part of a samurai's arsenal.  Sinclaire goes into quite a bit of detail related to the history of swordsmithing over the years, as well as the different styles of swords that evolved over time.  I hadn't ever given much thought as to how evolving forms of armed combat caused the sword to shift from stabbing to slicing instruments.  Sinclaire also includes a large number of illustrations and photos to document much of his information.  Seeing sword blades stripped of all their ornaments gave me a greater appreciation for what care and craftsmanship went into them.  If I were ever to start collecting Japanese weaponry, this would be a book that would reside on my shelf.  But from the perspective of a relatively uninformed reader, the material was a bit hard to follow with all the detailed historical references.  I'm guessing it was due to the unfamiliar Japanese names, and the difficulty that a Western reader would have in keeping them straight when presented with hundreds of years of history in a relatively short number of pages.

If this is an area of interest for you, it'd be hard to go wrong by reading this book.  If you're only mildly interested in the subject, you'll probably end up skimming by the end and studying the detailed photographs.

06/13/2008

IBM staff advised to use open software

Category IBM/Lotus

From The Irish Times: IBM staff advised to use open software

IBM has sent a memo advising 20,000 technical staff to move from Microsoft Office to productivity software from its Lotus subsidiary that conforms to open standards.

The memo from IBM's chief information officer, Mark Hennessy, and vice-president Gina Poole was sent to employees yesterday, and although it does not explicitly mention Office, it refers to "a new, more integrated approach to desktop productivity software" that is facilitated by using Lotus Symphony.

Very nice to see the home team pushing for the internal use of the Symphony software.  Bodes well that the .odt format will start becoming a common document extension.

06/12/2008

A Green Door

Category Everything Else

A Green Door

An old city of hills, of stairs,
And on one street, a green door.
On my own, I'd pay it no mind,
too concerned about my destination, my task.

But this time, the green door was the destination.
Not knowing what to expect, I stepped through the entry,
to find myself standing at the base of a winding stairway, looking up,
climbing steps of stone, worn smooth by the travels of many before me.

The journey up takes effort, both physical and emotional.
But at the top of the climb is another door.
One of friendship, of acceptance, of laughter.
Of sharing, of openness.
Of talks, of silence.
A feeling of being home, half a world away.

Tomorrow I'll wake up in another place known as home,
surrounded by the comfortable and familiar.
But things will forever be different.

I've learned that a home is more than a building and possessions.
It's family and friends that accept you for who you are.
Relationships that transcend country and culture.

How many green doors have I ignored in my life?
How many stairways have I passed by,
thinking the climb to be too much of a risk?

One anonymous green door in an old city of many doors,
of many different colors.
But now it's the door in that city that means
more to me than all the others.

06/10/2008

So yes... I'm still alive over here. :)

Category ILUG2008

My intentions were to blog about ILUG as it happened.  The reality is that the wifi connection at the college had some issues with port blocking and coverage in the dorm rooms.  As such, the laptop was pretty much restricted to registration and presentation activities.  I'll recap when I get home later this week, but suffice it to say that once again it was an incredible event pulled off by incredible people.  It's not easy to get so many people to take "ownership" of an event that is far different than most conferences you'll ever go to.  

Ireland was great for both conference and visiting, and Scotland is incredible.  Again, a recap when I get back and let all the events, impressions, and feelings wash over me.

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Thomas "Duffbert" Duff

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