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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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08/30/2008

Book Review - Training the Samurai Mind: A Bushido Sourcebook by Thomas Cleary

Category Book Review Thomas Cleary Training the Samurai Mind: A Bushido Sourcebook

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I saw Training the Samurai Mind: A Bushido Sourcebook by Thomas Cleary at the library awhile back, and picked it up.  Japanese bushido thinking is something I normally find interesting, and I've gravitated to books like The Art of War and The Book of Five Rings in the past.  In this case, I had a far more difficult time staying engaged with the material.  Perhaps it was the "anthology" nature of the material, meaning that there wasn't necessarily a lot of continuity from chapter to chapter.  Given the writings span over 500 years, I can somewhat understand that...

There are 22 chapters, each consisting of a writing by some Japanese individual who was well-known as a bushido teacher in that particular time period.  Cleary gives a short intro of the person's biography and cultural setting, as well as their philosophical bent.  The rest of the chapter is then a translated writing of theirs that covers some element of bushido, be it warfare, personal responsibility, or training.  Cleary has done a nice job in translating the material in a way that makes it understandable to the Western reader.  Given that each chapter stands completely alone, you can digest the book in small chunks without having to keep track of an overall plot or theme.  

I think I struggled in that the writers each had their own slants and takes on Taoism, Confucianism, Buddhism, and Shinto in terms of how they affected the life of a samurai.  Not having a strong background in the differences and nuances of each, I think some of the material was lost on me.  Also, I missed the continuity that comes from a single writer exploring a subject in some detail.  I'm sure I'd feel different if the subjects were more a part of my normal culture.  But as such, they came across as somewhat random and eclectic.

I think Cleary did a fine job in translation of the material.  I just think that you'd have to be pretty well grounded in bushido thought to get the most out of this book.

08/30/2008

Book Review - On the Way to the Web: The Secret History of the Internet and Its Founders by Michael A. Banks

Category Book Review Michael A. Banks On the Way to the Web: The Secret History of the Internet and Its Founders

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I'm old enough to have to admit to having owned a 300 bps modem connected to a Commodore 128, and being in awe of the ability to exchange emails in three or four days with people on the other side of the planet.  Michael A. Banks takes you back to those times in the book On the Way to the Web: The Secret History of the Internet and Its Founders.  It's far too easy to forget exactly what led us up to the place we are today when it comes to instantaneous communication via the web.  This was a book I thoroughly enjoyed, and it brought back fond memories of my initial fascination with online activities.

Contents:
Looking Back - Where Did It All Begin?; In The Money; Making Contact With CompuServe; The Source; Dis-Content and Conflict; Evolution; Online Experiments; Trials and Errors; The Second Wave; AOL Gestation; The Third Wave; In With The New, Out With The Old; AOL Evolves - Expansion, Integration, and Success; Prodigy - The Flat-Rate Pioneer Who Just Didn't Get It; Moving To The Net; Omissions, Additions, and Corrections; Online Timeline; Bibliography; Founders; Index

Banks starts out in the 1960's with the beginnings of what we now know as the Internet.  ARPANET was the first attempt to network two computers together through a common set of protocols that would allow dissimilar computers to communicate with each other.  But even though ARPANET worked, it was still limited to government and educational institutions.  The ability for the common man to hook into that power was nonexistent.  Of course, the personal computer was not even a concept that most people could grasp.  Computers were big and powerful (for the time), and who would need one all for themselves?  This started to open up more in the 70's, when online database resources started to become available.  Timesharing computers were available to connect to these sites via terminals, but the cost was incredibly steep, often in the hundreds of dollars per hour of connect time.  To play in this world,  you had to be rich.

But as time went on, the personal computer started to become a viable option for people, and with it an accessory that opened up the world...  the modem.  Companies started realizing that all the unused computing power on evenings and weekends could be made available to consumers with modems, and thus launched services like CompuServe, The Source, and Prodigy.  Although purely text-based to start with, computer owners started to flock to these services offering revolutionary features like discussion forums, CB simulators (chat), and online news.  Much like the dot.com era that's more understandable to people, the race was on to make your fortunes in the online world.  Text-based offerings gave way to graphical interfaces, prices started to drop, ideas were born and died in a matter of just a couple of years, and greed and personalities were still in conflict with solid business plans.

Banks wraps up his book in the mid-90's, when Internet access was starting to become accessible to nearly anyone with a computer and modem.  Bulletin board systems started dying out, as people didn't need to dial to get to individual sites any longer.  A single phone connection to their ISP would connect them to the full world of the Internet.  Walled-off content systems like CompuServe and Prodigy no longer had a monopoly on information, and had to adapt or fold.  The "Web" had started to take off, and the proprietary offerings of content and navigations were in their final chapter.

For aging codgers like myself who were into computers during this time, On the Way to the Web is an incredibly interesting step back into the past.  I fondly remember calling bulletin boards for hours on end at 300 bps, tying up our phone lines and incurring the wrath of those trying to call me.  Getting a free trial period to a service like Online Airline Guides made me feel like I was on the bleeding edge of information and technology.  At the time, it's hard to look at where you're at and envision a future vastly different than what you currently have.  On the other hand, looking back now reminds you that history repeats itself, and the dot.com frenzy wasn't very much different than frenzies that came before.  This book will be a great "blast from the past" for those like myself, as well as a great resource for those interested in how we got from two computers networked together to constant connectivity to everyone else.

You can even get your kids to read this and start with the "when I was your age, we didn't have..." stories.  :)

08/30/2008

Book Review - Last Rituals: An Icelandic Novel of Secret Symbols, Medieval Witchcraft, and Modern Murder by Yrsa Sigurdardottir

Category Book Review Yrsa Sigurdardottir Last Rituals: An Icelandic Novel of Secret Symbols Medieval Witchcraft and Modern Murder

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A friend of mine suggested I give Last Rituals: An Icelandic Novel of Secret Symbols, Medieval Witchcraft, and Modern Murder by Yrsa Sigurdardottir a read.  Not quite knowing what to expect, I finally started reading it earlier in the week.  Overall, it was a pretty good story, and one that took me outside my normal cultural settings.

The general plot revolves around the death of a German student who was studying in Iceland.  Harald Guntlieb was found in a printer closet by one of his college teachers, his body showing signs of ritualistic mutilation.  Guntlieb's parents don't think that the Icelandic police have done enough to find the real killer (they *do* have someone in custody, however).  Ms. Guntlieb hires Thora Gutmundsdottir, a single mother who is a lawyer in a small two-person firm, to dig around and try to uncover other angles that might have been ignored.  She's to be assisted by Matthew Reich, an employee of the Guntlieb's who handles security matters.  The rather high fee she's been offered overcomes her reluctance to get involved, and she starts to work with Reich to bridge the gap between the German and Iceland culture and language.  On first glance, it appears that the police have a pretty solid case on their suspect, and that Harald was wrapped up in some pretty strange, medieval practices.  But as the two investigators continue to dig deeper, Harald's "friends" seem to know more than they're telling, and Harald's lifestyle may not be all that the others have made it out to be.  Following the clues laid out in a series of letters from the 16th century, Gutmundsdottir and Reich start to learn the real truth behind Harald's obsession with witches and sorcery, and how they led to his death.

Not having any reference for Icelandic culture, I can't say whether this was an accurate representation of everyone involved.  I will say, however, that the story and plot were interesting, and the characters had life.  Gutmundsdottir doesn't come off as some super-hero detective.  Instead, she comes off as a single mom struggling to balance work and life, as well as trying to manage a significant crisis in the life of her son.  I enjoyed the interplay between the Gutmundsdottir and Reich characters, as they did seem to be a rather odd couple.  And along the way, I picked up a bit of history to boot.  I don't know that I'd make Sigurdardottir's novels part of my "must read" fare, but it was an enjoyable departure from my normal recreational reading.

08/30/2008

Thanks to everyone who commented on my "down in the dumps" post on Monday...

Category Everything Else

It's always a great reminder that you're not out there, going it alone.  

I *have* actually said no to a couple things this week, instead of offering up the "let me know if you need help" trigger statement.  I also got on top of a couple issues that were kicking my butt.  Overall, I'm feeling much better about things.

It's not possible to just snap your fingers and restart at a baseline of zero, but I'm making progress.

08/25/2008

I can't do it all...

Category Everything Else

I'm finally coming to the conclusion that I can't do it all.  I continually think that one more thing can be added to the pile.  "Sure, I can do that!"  

Until the point when my "underpromise, overdeliver" motto comes crashing down to "overpromise, underdeliver".

And of course, the faster I run trying to get caught up, the more room I think I have on my plate to do other things.  And the cycle perpetuates itself.

Contrary to what others may think, I *don't* have 28 hours in my day.  I'm not even doing a good job anymore with the 24 that I *do* have.

All those things I *want* to do, both personal and professional, end up getting tossed to the side as good intentions, bullied out by the "urgent".

I need to step off this carousel, sit on the bench for awhile, and really think about what I'm doing and where I'm going.

Because the logical outcome of the path I'm currently on is not one I care to be part of...

08/25/2008

Book Review - BusinessObjects XI Release 2 For Dummies

Category Book Review Derek Torres Stuart Mudie Julie Albaret BusinessObjects XI Release 2 For Dummies

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One of the main reasons I like the Dummies series is that it helps me to know what I don't know.  When I have no background on the overall structure of a technology, I find that a Dummies book helps me to get the right mental framework so I can start to dive in at a more technical level.  BusinessObjects XI Release 2 For Dummies by Derek Torres, Stuart Mudie, and Julie Albaret once again filled that role for me when it comes to working with BusinessObjects.  At least now I can start to use the tool without floundering around so much.

Contents:
Introduction
Part 1 - Getting Started with BusinessObjects: Business Intelligence and BusinessObjects XI Release 2 - Working Hand in Hand; Deploying on a Single Computer; Performing a Server Installation; Taking Control with the Central Management Console
Part 2 - Universes: Creating a Universe from the Safety of Your Desk; Defining a Universe; Joining Your Universe; Adding Dimensions to Your Universe
Part 3 - Using Your Desktop for Reporting: Reporting Live from the Desktop; Building Queries; Documents in BusinessObjects
Part 4 - Making Web Intelligence Work for You: Getting Your Hands Dirty with InfoView; Setting Up Your Documents; Working with Your Completed Documents
Part 5 - Keeping Track of How Your Organization Is Doing: A Different Kind of Dashboard; Making Better Decisions through Analytics; Using Performance Manager to Set Goals and Track Achievement
Part 6 - Getting the Best Possible Data with Data Marts: Putting Data Integrator to Work for You; Working with Data Marts
Part 7 - The Part of Tens: Ten Ways to Prepare for BusinessObjects Integration; Ten Resources to Help You
Part 8 - Appendixes: Reporting on Crystal Reports; Glossary
Index

We use BusinessObjects where I work, and it's always been on my list of "one day I have to get around to investigating this tool" items.  Now after reading this book, I'm bumping that up from a "one day" to a quarterly goal to hold myself accountable.  The authors start out with the basics of "what is BusinessObjects", as well as how you install it.  From there, they get into the basics of how to set up queries to data sources, formatting reports, some SQL terminology for getting the right relationships between data, and how to set up reports for use by others.  I was especially intrigued by their chapter on Dashboards, as that's becoming an increasingly important tool for conveying summary information at a glance to knowledge workers.

I don't expect a Dummies book to serve as an ongoing, exhaustive reference for a particular software package.  That's what the 800 page volumes are for.  Business Objects XI Release 2 for Dummies gives me that quick start to get going quickly.  Hopefully by the end of this year, this book will have helped lead me down the BusinessObjects path and opened a number of new opportunities for what I can offer my end users.

08/24/2008

This is why I have such a hard time donating blood...

Category Everything Else

As Mr. Litton well knows, I'm not a huge fan of needles.  Back *many* years ago, I attempted to give blood at a company blood drive.  After about five attempts on both arms, they thought that perhaps they should stop trying as I was not looking exactly well.  That was the last attempt at blood donation for over 20 years.  

I decided to overcome my fear a couple years ago and tried again.  The first three sessions went OK.  But the last two have been less than successful.  Even after letting them know I'm overweight, my veins don't behave, and I don't like needles, they still think it's all OK.

Instead, they get no blood, and I get this:

A picture named M2

Bleech!

08/24/2008

Book Review - A Rotten Person Travels the Caribbean: A Grump in Paradise Discovers that Anyplace it's Legal to Carry a Machete is Comedy Just Waiting to Happen

Category Book Review Gary Buslik A Rotten Person Travels the Caribbean: A Grump in Paradise Discovers that Anyplace it's Legal to Carry a Machete is Comedy Just Waiting to Happen

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When I recently requested the book Cruise Confidential for reviewing, I also ended up with a second book in the package.  The title was enough to suck me in right away...  A Rotten Person Travels the Caribbean: A Grump in Paradise Discovers that Anyplace it's Legal to Carry a Machete is Comedy Just Waiting to Happen by Gary Buslik.  Ideally I would have waited to read this until our next cruise to the Southern Caribbean in March.  But I couldn't wait that long.  Rotten is a strange mix of travel stories leaving you with a question...  what really happened, what's true, what's fantasy, and how do I sign up for a job like this?  If you can imagine Carl Hiaasen or Dave Barry as a comedy travel writer, you start to come close to Buslik's style.  But any way you look at it, it was a pretty funny read with some poignant moments mixed in.

Contents:
The Time I Accidentally Urinated on Idi Amin; My Military-Industrial Complex; NASDAQ 5000; El Max; The Power of MasterCard; The Night Ramon Popular Stopped Being a Commie; Papa's Ghost; A Bug in My Eye; Weed Killer; My Secret Cigars; My Date with Princess Di; Flow; The Art of Indifference in an Uncivil Age; Why Chicken Rectums Are More Relevant than You Think; Black Power; Sometimes It's the Other Way Around; Where Satan Works; Acknowledgments

Buslik is a travel writer who spends a lot of time in the Caribbean for his stories.  He also sees himself as a comedy writer, and the two talents combine for some crazy adventures that are stretched to the edge of credibility.  For instance, the Amin story takes place at a restaurant where he and his wife have gone to try and enjoy a night out.  He steps out to smoke a cigar, and comes back in to a somewhat different mood pervading the entire place.  Everyone seems rather frightened and subdued, although the music is still cranking away.  He decides to go to the bathroom to get a little relief, only to find that he's standing side by side with the former dictator of Uganda.  His second and third take cause him to turn slightly and, you guessed it, dribble a bit on Idi.  Not a move to guarantee a long and peaceful life.  From there, the story gets REALLY bizarre, with Idi coming out and asking his wife to dance.  This is followed up by Amin finding them at their hotel, and pretty much becoming a stalker.  Somewhere in there I think reality crosses over to fantasy, but it still makes for a funny read.  

But not all the pieces are along that vein.  One of his trips to Cuba has him searching for the ghost of Hemingway.  He's not successful in finding anything that appears to be the spirit of Papa, but he does meet the old man who was his best friend down there.  Now old and confined to a wheelchair, the guy has almost no life except to be rolled out for occasional pictures with tourists.  Buslik meets him and wonders why the old man continues to hang on tight to life, when so little of it appears to be worth anything.  But in a brief moment of clarity, the old man looks at Buslik, mistakenly thinks he's "Ernesto" come back like he said he would, and is rolled off with a smile on his face, something that rarely happens.  The old man dies within the next couple of days, and Buslik contemplates what that case of mistaken identity might have meant to a man who had nothing left in his life.  Very touching...

If you have followed Buslik's work, you may have seen a few of these stories as articles in various travel magazines over the last 10 years.  The anthology nature of this book explains why many of the stories seem to have little to no bearing on each other.  But if you're in the mood for an offbeat look at the islands, this is a nice way to go.  Grab an umbrella drink, relax, and enjoy.

08/24/2008

Book Review - Phantom Prey by John Sandford

Category Book Review John Sandford Phantom Prey

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John Sandford's Prey series is one that I've followed over the years.  But the last few books seemed to be losing much of the spark that drew me to them in the first place.  The latest installment in the series is Phantom Prey, and it finally came in at the library.  Based on the way things had been going, I wondered if this would be the last one I'd read for a long time.  Fortunately, Phantom seems to get back to some of the more exciting style of writing that originally drew me in.  While not perfect, it's definitely a welcome change in direction.

Lucas Davenport is somewhat coerced into looking into the murder of a young gothic'ish woman, the mother of which is a friend of his wife, Weather.  He figures he can make a few calls, sound like he's interested, and then let the regular cops carry on with their investigation.  But before he can make much of an effort, another goth murder occurs, and there appear to be ties to the daughter.  After the third killing in just a few days, Davenport is completely committed to the case, not knowing if they are random incidents or all tied back to the daughter.  There's an incredible lack of evidence in the killings, and he's forced to look at things in ways he normally wouldn't consider.  And one of those ways seems to point back to a person who would seemingly be above reproach...

In the earlier Davenport novels, you saw a lot of mind games and interesting trails of though due to Lucas's background as a game designer.  But since he's been put into management, there seems to be less of that element, and I think it was the piece that made the novels special.  Phantom seems to drift back more to that core premise, and there are plenty of psychological twists and turns going on.  And once Sandford lets it be known who the killer is, the head games really begin.

I'm hoping that Phantom Prey marks a return to the Lucas Davenport style of the earlier books in the series.  If so, I'll definitely keep reading along.  Otherwise, I could easily start missing new episodes without too much regret.

08/23/2008

Interesting Report... Open Source in the Enterprise - An O'Reilly Radar Report by Bernard Golden

Category O'Reilly Radar Report Open Source in the Enterprise Bernard Golden

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I had the opportunity to read Open Source in the Enterprise - An O'Reilly Radar Report by Bernard Golden from O'Reilly Publishing.  For those of us who are on the front lines of IT, using open source software usually isn't something we think twice about.  But in the enterprise, there is still a considerable amount of confusion and fear behind the concept.  Organizations like to have a vendor from which they can buy and obtain support.  And while there are plenty of companies that offer support options for open source packages, the common scenario is to download it for free from a site like SourceForge, install it, and then use peer-driven support mechanisms (like discussion forums) to answer questions.  This report breaks down enterprise-level open source software into six characteristics and six core drivers behind open source adoption.  The bulk of the report then takes each of the drivers and discusses them in deeper detail

What I most appreciated about this report was the bent toward real-world situations and applicability.  The core drivers are logical and obvious, and they truly are the things that the business needs to consider.  But each of these chapters also contains a cross-reference to what characteristics of open source address this driver.  From there, you get a real-life case study of a business addressing a need by using an open source package, a list of best practices, and a list of issues that come along with the benefits.  It's very easy to paint open source as a panacea for all your IT troubles, but realistically there are issues that, if not addressed, may well make the situation even worse than it was with proprietary software.

I see this as a perfect paper for architects and senior management in an IT department who are struggling with the concept of open source adoption.  It's practical, balanced, and speaks at a level that doesn't rule out all but the IT geeks of the world.  

08/17/2008

Book Review - Atomic Lobster by Tim Dorsey

Category Book Review Tim Dorsey Atomic Lobster

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With all the other books I've been reading of late, I missed that Tim Dorsey had come out with another Serge Storms novel...  Atomic Lobster.  So long as you know what you're getting into with a Dorsey novel, this is a lot of fun much as the others were.

It's nearly impossible to write a plot summary of a Dorsey novel.  There are a number of things going on that seemingly have nothing to do with anything, only to have them intersect a hundred pages later.  The main driving plot in this novel is Serge's "promise" to watch out for Jim Davenport, an extremely non-confrontational guy who doesn't want to do anything to rock the boat.  Serge gets involved when he shows up at a support group for people who can't confront others.  He hears Davenport's story about being ripped off by some movers, and he takes it upon himself to protect this guy.  From there, it all gets crazy.  The mover is disposed of in a rather creative fashion.  His disappearance triggers some smugglers to go into overdrive to find a statue that he was supposed to deliver.  They find Davenport's name and think Davenport has it.  The smugglers have to hold off their bosses, so they attempt another job using grandmas on a cruise ship to unknowingly smuggle in ancient artifacts.  The grandmas just think it's a piece of junk and dispose of it before they clear customs.  A notorious killer is also after Davenport in order to take revenge for his jail time.  All these plots (and a few others for fun) converge in a wild party in a house that Serge's supposed to be house-setting.  Even then, things aren't done.  All of this action takes place at a frenetic pace, with Serge hitting all the "historical" parts of Florida and reliving history long since past.

This really is a wild ride of a novel, in a bizarre way.  Serge's means of dishing out justice is gruesome, yet oddly funny in its own way.  For a character who is certifiably crazy, Serge has more logic than many other stereotyped Floridians.  Fans of Dorsey will understand and enjoy.  New readers of Dorsey will probably wonder what they got themselves in for.  Just sit back, prepare for lunacy, and go with the flow...

08/16/2008

Book Review - Hold Tight by Harlan Coben

Category Book Review Harlan Coben Hold Tight

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Another book that came into the library recently that was on my hold list was Harlan Coben latest novel, Hold Tight.  This book kept me reading a bit past my bedtime.  The action was constant and tight, although the plot was a bit difficult to keep straight at times.  There are a lot of different stories that come together at the end, and occasionally it's hard to remember just who is who...

Mike and Tia Baye are struggling with their son, Adam.  He's becoming more withdrawn and sullen, and the parents decide to monitor his computer to see what's going on.  This monitoring reveals that Adam is keeping some sort of secret, and he decides to run away to attend a party rather than obey his father and go to a hockey game with him.  Mike puts everything on the line to find Adam and reunite the family.  Meanwhile, there are a number of other stories going on...  A psychotic killer is picking seemingly random women off the street and killing them in a very gruesome manner, all to find out some information that he believes they hold.  Another father is furious with his small daughter's teacher, as he made a snide comment about the child's physical appearance that has made her the target of ridicule at school.  The teacher is someone who has always taken pride in his work, and the comment was something he highly regrets.  But he also realizes that his mistake could cost him his career.  All these stories (and a few others) swirl along at their own pace, and slowly start to come together as the relationships between the characters start to reveal themselves.

As I mentioned, the action was constant and the characters drew me into their struggles.  I think every parent can empathize with understanding a withdrawn child, especially when it appears that there might be a life-threatening situation developing.  I would have preferred see the plots start to intersect sooner in a way that started to hint at the relationships involved.  As it was, things were kept up in the air until nearly the very end.  And even at the end, a major twist happens that causes a few readjustments in the mindset of the reader.  Hold Tight is an enjoyable read, so make sure you have some uninterrupted time before you get started...

08/16/2008

Book Review - Fearless Fourteen by Janet Evanovich

Category Book Review Janet Evanovich Fearless Fourteen

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My number finally came up at the library for Janet Evanovich's Fearless Fourteen.  Since I enjoy the Stephanie Plum series, it didn't sit around the house long before I picked it up and started into the latest adventures of Ms. Plum and all of her surrounding characters.  The novel is a decent installment in the series...  Not one of the best, but I did enjoy the read and the plot.

Plum ends up babysitting a punk gamer when she picks up his mom on a bond violation.  It should only be for a couple of hours, but the kid watching duties stretch into days when the mom is held longer than normal, and then disappears after she's released.  Morelli also pitches in on the duties, as they decide to have the kid stay at Morelli's place instead of Plum's apartment.  Of course, nothing is ever normal in Stephanie's life, and this is no exception.  People start sneaking into Morelli's place, and a few don't come out alive.  The kid's uncle, Dom Rizzi, wants to kill Morelli, as he thinks that Morelli was responsible for getting his sister pregnant, which would possibly make the kid Morelli's son.  Rizzi was also involved in a bank heist where the money was never found.  For some reason, many of these murky people following Morelli seem to think that Morelli's house holds the clue to the missing money.  And really, all Morelli and Plum want to do is find the kid's mom and be done with it all...

Fearless Fourteen covers much of the same ground as other novels in the series.  Morelli and Plum seem to be getting a bit more serious, and the potential fatherhood thing forces them to contemplate life as instant parents.  Many of the other supporting cast aren't quite as active here as they are in other novels.  Grandma Mazur plays a decent role, and Lula's pending marriage to one of Ranger's guys is pretty funny.  Ranger is pretty low-key here, as are Stephanie's parents.  Bottom line, it was mind candy for a few hours of entertainment among "friends".  It wasn't absolutely must-read, but as a fan of the series it was OK.

08/14/2008

Book Review - The Faith of Barack Obama by Stephen Mansfield

Category Book Review Stephen Mansfield The Faith of Barack Obama

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For better or worse (depending on what your particular viewpoint is), a candidate's religious views always come into play during a Presidential election.  Stephen Mansfield sets out to examine exactly what "faith" means to the Democratic candidate in the book The Faith of Barack Obama.  I'll admit when I was offered the chance to read and review this, I was expecting a bit of a puff piece trying to paint him as highly acceptable to the evangelical conservative group of voters.  Instead, it was an honest look at his background and upbringing, explaining how all those elements play into his definition of faith in God.  While I know I don't quite agree on all his particular slants, I feel more comfortable with where he is coming from, and what that might mean if he is elected as President of the United States.

Contents:
The Life of Barack Obama - A Chronology; Introduction; To Walk Between Worlds; My House, Too; Faith Fit for the Age; The Alters of State; Four Faces of Faith; A Time to Heal; Acknowledgments; Notes; Bibliography; About the Author; Index

Using a number of speeches and excerpts from prior writings, Mansfield constructs what Obama says about his own faith, his own brand of religious thought.  Placing those views against his life background gives a much clearer picture of exactly what Obama means when he uses words that are interpreted differently by people of varying religious viewpoints.  Being raised in a mixed-race family, he had trouble figuring out where he fit in society and culture.  His mother had her own views of religion (mainly secularism), while his biological father had problems with alcohol abuse.  After the breakup of that marriage, his mother remarried and moved to Indonesia, where Obama was exposed to the teachings of Islam.  Coming back to the States, he continued his education and also became involved in social causes in Chicago.  This led him to Trinity United Church of Christ and the Rev. Jeremiah Wright.  Unless you understand the black church and black liberation theology, it's very difficult to understand Rev. Wright and the influence he had in Obama's life, as well as the life of the community there.  Mix all of these influences together in the mind of a very well-educated, deliberate person, and you start to understand the gist of Obama's faith.  It's reflective of what the author calls the Religious Left, a group that places more emphasis on social responsibility as part of their doctrine, as well as blending in elements of truth from various sources.

Mansfield also takes a chapter at the end to compare the religious backgrounds of Obama, Clinton, Bush, and McCain.  It becomes evident that McCain comes from an older generation where faith is something that is done but not talked about.  Bush is more "open" about his religious conversion coming from his alcoholic background.  Clinton professes more of a traditional religious faith, while Obama is representative of what some would call "post-modern Christianity".  The chapter also tends to point out how each end of the religious spectrum has problems with whatever level of faith is professed.  Welcome to the age of cynicism in America...  :)

Personally, I found the book interesting and useful in terms of understanding Obama more than I did before.  I've tended to be more "right-wing" in my views and thinking, but this last eight years has left a dent in my political leanings.  Instead of buying into the "all good/all evil" extremes that tend to dominate the media, I now can make choices based on actual evidence rather than rumored innuendoes and accusations.  Being how short the book is (165 pages), I'd recommend it as useful reading to anyone who wants to give more than a passing thought on who they should vote for in the next election.

08/10/2008

Book Review - Cruise Confidential: A Hit Below the Waterline: Where the Crew Lives, Eats, Wars, and Parties. One Crazy Year Working on Cruise Ships

Category Book Review Brian David Bruns Cruise Confidential: A Hit Below the Waterline: Where the Crew Lives Eats Wars and Parties. One Crazy Year Working on Cruise Ships

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This book wasn't on my radar screen until I happened to see a Twitter message referring to it.  After looking it up on Amazon, I knew I had to read it...  Cruise Confidential: A Hit Below the Waterline: Where the Crew Lives, Eats, Wars, and Parties. One Crazy Year Working on Cruise Ships by Brian David Bruns.  My wife and I cruise quite often on vacations, so the chance to see some "behind the scenes" views of how the crew lives is always interesting to me on a number of levels.  After whipping through this in about 24 hours (thank you, Mr. Insomnia!), I was all ready to go on our March cruise and view the experience in a different light.

Contents:
Part 1 - Trainee (The Plunge): Strange Bedfellows; Global Warning; Under the Water; Denizens of Babel; Nobody Parties Like Sailors; The Midnight Bahamian Toga Bash; Ship Life 101; Creepy Conch Fritters; Graduation; The End of the Beginning
Part 2 - Waiter (Promotion): My First, and Only, Clingy Lingerie Model; Pancake Darwinism; The Crew Bar; My Heart Will Go On; The Infamous Filipino Elvis Massacre; Great Whites; Dining on Ashes; The Slings and Arrows of Outrageous Assumption; Stripping in the Dining Room
Part 3 - Assistant Maitre d' (Demotion): Bogo; Enemy Mine; The Other Sexy Bitch; Tattoo Goo; The Torture of Funship Freddy; Hunger Pains; Viral Infections and You; Something Sweet at Midnight; Showdown and Breakdown; Jamaican Deep Blue
Part 4 - The Legend (Destruction): How to Fix an American; Legend; Tongs over Escalators; Frog and Onion; Ice Pirates; The Boatyard; Lost in Panama; The Four Temptations of the Apocalypse; Toast Master General; The Suicide; The Miracle; Epilogue
Part 5 - Appendices: Glossary of Ship Language; Provisions for a Cruise; Stupid Questions
About the Author

I've read and researched enough to know that working on a cruise ship is not at all the glamorous career depicted in ads.  You work seven days a week, at least 12 to 14 hours a day, live in really small cabins, and don't make very much money (all things considered).  This is why you mostly see nationalities other than Americans working the ships.  These wages are often quite a bit higher than what they could earn back home.  Bruns tells his story of being the first American in Carnival's history to serve out a full contract in food services without quitting, transferring, or getting fired.  He got used to the phrase "are you stupid or crazy?" being asked by most of his coworkers.  :)

Bruns got assigned to Carnival's Conquest as he wanted to be with his girlfriend who also worked for Carnival.  Very few believed he was actually going into food service because he was an American, and Americans couldn't do that job without cracking.  He was determined to prove them wrong over his eight month contract, knowing that he had been "promised" a promotion to management and the assistant maitre d' position by the end of the assignment.  But what's promised and what actually happens can be two different things.  His relationship with his girlfriend was rocky at best on the ship, as they were both working 14 to 16 hour days, and she was hanging around with fellow Romanians during the off-hours.  Bruns was still in love with her, and was determined not to fall into the trap of sleeping with any and all the attractive women coworkers, even though the opportunity was there on a daily basis.  After she transferred to another ship, he had to decide whether his career as a cruise worker was worth the trouble of trying to maintain a long-term relationship, especially given the discrimination he faced from fellow workers when it came to stereotypes and perceptions.  Surprisingly, he stuck it out and ended up in a situation far better than he would have hoped for.

Bruns is an excellent writer who is able to show you raw emotions and the nasty underbelly of what goes on.  It's not meant to be an expose so much as a personal story of what he went through and what he learned in the process.  It's hard to believe that anyone could survive the parties, alcohol consumption, and sweatshop conditions that exist behind the "Crew Only" doors.  Even though I was laughing in quite a few places, I also (re-)discovered how difficult that life is, and how much we the customer just take things for granted.  I'll definitely remember to be much more considerate of the crew next time, as well as keeping my eyes open for the things I'm not supposed to notice.  

08/10/2008

Book Review - Your Brain: The Missing Manual by Matthew MacDonald

Category Book Review Matthew MacDonald Your Brain: The Missing Manual

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When you think about it, the thing we think *with* is one of the biggest mysteries to us.  In Your Brain: The Missing Manual by Matthew MacDonald, you'll gain some level of understanding about how the brain works, what makes it tick, and how you can manipulate it to work better.  Even better, you don't have to be a brain surgeon to understand it all.

Contents:
Part 1 - Warming Up: A Lap Around the Brain; Brain Food - Healthy Eating; Sleep - Taking Your Brain Offline
Part 2 - Exploring Your Brain: Perception; Memory; Emotions; Reason; Your Personality
Part 3 - Understanding Other People's Brains: The Battle of the Sexes; The Developing Brain
Index

The thing I appreciate most about the Missing Manual series is the way they are designed to be readable for a "normal" person.  Part 1 takes you through more of the "hardware" part of the brain...  what the different parts are, the roles they serve, and how they interact with each other.  Couple clear writing with plenty of illustrations, and you end up with a firm foundation in Brain 101.  From there, MacDonald starts digging into more of the "software" aspect of the brain, as in how are memories stored.  He uses the most current studies and findings to explain what makes you, you.  The items that made this exceptionally interesting to me are the examples of people who, through some abnormality in the brain, don't quite process things the same way we do.  For instance, "Henry M." had his hippocampus removed in 1953 to prevent seizures.  The side-effect was that he lost his ability to form long-term memories.  Imagine your mind stuck in a time warp, where your last memory is as it was before your surgery.  Anything presented to you since then only lasts a few minutes before you have absolutely no recollection of it.  By tracking what he could and couldn't do in this state, researchers were able to draw conclusions as to what role the hippocampus played in memory.  That kind of stuff is something that amazes me, and confirms the fact that we still only have a fraction of a clue as to how the mind works.

If you're at all interested about your mind, or if you're simply curious about how such things as optical illusions work, this would be a great book to read.

08/09/2008

Book Review - Napoleon's Privates: 2,500 Years of History Unzipped by Tony Perrottet

Category Book Review Tony Perrottet Napoleon's Privates: 2 500 Years of History Unzipped

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Finally...  The answers to all those important questions that have plagued mankind over the years.  Who's buried in Custer's tomb?  How many children did Jefferson have with his slave Sally Hemings?  And was Napoleon's "private parts" go to the grave with him?  These and many other "critical" questions are answered in Napoleon's Privates: 2,500 Years of History Unzipped by Tony Perrottet.  Yeah, nothing much in here *has* to be known to get by in life, but it's a fun read and a look at history that's not normally discussed in polite company.

(Normally, I'd list the table of contents here to give the prospective reader an idea of what's included.  But each "chapter" is only a couple pages long, the titles are full questions or statements, and it goes on for three pages.  The listing would be longer than my review.  Trust me when I say they touch on a whole lot of strange and bizarre items...)

Perrottet's idea for the book started when he heard that Napoleon's "privates" had been absconded with at death, and were now in the possession of a guy who lived in New Jersey.  After tracing down that particular story, he started following up on many other salacious rumors of people and places.  Did J. Edgar Hoover, the gruff head of the FBI for many years, actually go to parties in drag?  The rumors say yes, but the evidence is lacking and the main accuser had a bit of a motive for spreading the story.  Were ancient Olympian athletes pure and natural, untouched by today's level of performance enhancing substances?  Nope, they were just as driven to win at any cost, using potions, charms, and rituals designed to offer up an edge over the competition.  They would have had to have been to try things like Ethiopian dirt, the flesh of a spotted gecko, or squeezed mustard-rocket leaf (known as the Semen of Hercules).  Yuck...  All those giants of industry, those "robber barons" who built the foundation of many of our industries?  Perrottet charts a number of them, looking at their childhood, their big break, the signature coupe, their bid for respectability, their secret tip, and finally, their "inspirational quote".  Easy to get choked up with Jay Gould's classic "I can hire one half of the working class to kill the other half."

This smallish book is filled with historical factoids that probably won't make much of a difference in how  you live your life.  But it's a fun read, and it'll offer up some alternative perspectives on who and/or why certain historical figures behaved as they did.  I definitely won't look at a champagne class the same way again...

08/09/2008

Book Review - Spycraft: The Secret History of the CIA's Spytechs, from Communism to al-Qaeda

Category Book Review Robert Wallace H. Keith Melton Henry Robert Schlesinger

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It's hard not to be fascinated with the James Bond spy persona, what with all the cool gadgets and such.  But what is the reality behind spies and their techniques?  Spycraft: The Secret History of the CIA's Spytechs, from Communism to al-Qaeda by Robert Wallace, H. Keith Melton, and Henry Robert Schlesinger offers up a comprehensive, detailed guide to the real-life story of the tools that make up a spy's arsenal of weapons.

Contents:
Section 1 - At The Beginning: My Hair Stood on End; We Must Be Ruthless
Section 2 - Playing Catch-up: The Penkovsky Era; Beyond Penkovsky; Bring in the Engineers; Building Better Gadgets
Section 3 - In The Passing Lane: Moving Through the Gap; The Pen Is Mightier Than the Sword (and Shield); Fire in the Attic; A Dissident at Heart; An Operation Called CKTAW
Section 4 - Let The Walls Have Ears: Cold Beer, Cheap Hotels, and a Voltmeter; Progress in a New Era; The Age of Bond Arrives; Genius Is Where You Find It
Section 5 - Prison, Bullet, Passport, Bomb: Conspicuous Fortitude, Exemplary Courage in a Cuban Jail; War by Any Other Name; Con Men, Fabricators, and Forgers; Tracking Terrorist Snakes
Section 6 - Fundamentals of Tradecraft: Assessment; Cover and Disguise; Concealments; Clandestine Surveillance; Covert Communications; Spies and the Age of Information; Epilogue - An Uncommon Service
Appendix A - U.S. Clandestine Services and OTS Organizational Genealogy; Appendix B - Selected Chronology of OTS; Appendix C - Directors of OTS; Appendix D - CIA Trailblazers from OTS; Appendix E - Pseudonyms of CIA Officers Used; Appendix F - Instructions to Decipher the Official Message from the CIA on page xxv
Glossary; Notes; Selected Bibliography; Acknowledgments; Index

The authors focus less on the "human" side of spying and more on the "technology" side of the spy game in this book.  Going back to World War 2, you learn about the formation of the Office of Strategic Services (OSS) and how they started to create their own tools to aid in the uncovering of enemy secrets as well as creating havoc behind the lines.  These efforts created things like the Limpet mine (designed to be used on ships and attached below the waterline), the Mole (an explosive that would be attached to trains and would trigger when there was an absence of light, like tunnels), and the Anerometer (an explosive to be used on planes that would detonate when a plane reached 1500 feet in altitude).  The key in their designs was that they were not "one-off" devices never to be repeated, but instead would be manufactured on a small scale, in secret, and be available when the situation called for it.  Through the years, the technology becomes more focused on surveillance and capturing of communication.  I was amazed at the wide array of bugging devices and homing beacons they were able to deploy successfully to track and monitor individuals who were intent on doing harm to U.S. interests.  Although not one of the now cutting-edge devices, I was fascinated over what they were able to accomplish with miniature cameras in the 1960's that could be deployed to agents and used to copy secret documents.  Tucked away in devices like pens and cigarette lighters, a spy could photograph a document in seconds with a high likelihood of success.

There are also interesting stories on how certain terrorist crimes were eventually solved.  The most well-known example was the bombing of Pam-Am flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland.  With debris scattered over 800 miles, it was not an easy task to assemble enough clues to determine how the bombing happened, much less who was responsible for it.  Incredibly, the case ended up turning on the discovery of a small piece of circuit board and a fragment of a t-shirt.  The technology gurus were able to match the circuit board to a type and design made by a certain company, as well as find the location of where the t-shirt had been sold.  These clues tied the crime back to Libya and two specific terrorists, who eventually were tried in an international court.  But it was only due to the extensive amount of intel uncovered on unrelated cases that allowed everything to be reassembled for this particular incident.

Spycraft is not a book you'll sit down and finish in an evening.  It's long (550 pages), very detailed, and it's not written in a novel-like style.  But it is fascinating reading, and the authors did an excellent job in telling the story of the hidden people in the CIA who work with no recognition but make all the difference in the world.

08/06/2008

Book Review - Sweetheart by Chelsea Cain

Category Book Review Chelsea Cain Sweetheart

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Through the Amazon Vine review program, I received an advance readers copy of Sweetheart by Chelsea Cain.  This is the follow-up to her first novel, Heartsick, and continues the story of detective Archie Sheridan and serial killer Gretchen Lowell.  While you still don't learn the complete reasoning behind Sheridan and Lowell's obsession with each other, the story kept me up far past my bedtime...

Sheridan has stopped seeing Lowell on a weekly basis at the prison, as he's trying hard to put his life back together with his family.  He *seems* to be making progress, but the damage from his ten days of torture at the hands of Lowell is something that won't go away quickly, if at all.  Now back to work on a regular basis, he draws a call on a crime scene in a forested park area of Portland.  It reminds him of his first case involving Lowell, and he starts to slip a bit in his personal rehab.  When they find two more bodies in the same area, he's back in task force mode, attempting to manage politics and reporters.  He again calls in Susan Ward, the newspaper reporter, to get him the media coverage on the bodies.  He needs this as the clues are few and far between on this one.  Ward has her own problems, as she's about to have a major story published that will bring down a state senator over allegations of an affair with a family babysitter ten years ago.  But before she can get the story published, the senator seemingly commits suicide by driving off a bridge, taking her senior editor down with him.  She doesn't know why her editor was meeting with him on the side, nor can she find out why the abused girl won't return her calls.  The newspaper seems to be spiking her story, as everyone wants to remember him as a beloved leader and statesman.

On top of all this, Sheridan's life takes a major turn for the worse when Lowell is able to escape from prison.  She immediately makes contact with him, and he knows that his family's life is in extreme danger.  She has no qualms about killing, and she wants to hurt Sheridan as much as possible before she actually finishes him off.  All his old emotional wounds are reopened, and he decides that he'll give her what she wants...  his death.  He doesn't feel life is worth living much these days anyway, and his painkiller abuse is slowly killing him anyway.  He sneaks out of police protective custody, meets up with Lowell, and puts his plan into play that hopefully will end with her death as well as his own...

As with Heartsick, there are two major plotlines going on here.  One is the current crime scene, and the other is Sheridan's obsession with Lowell.  The further I got into the book, the less able I was to put it down, and I ended up reading WAY past my normal bedtime.  I was not completely thrilled at the end, as I felt it was stretched pretty tight to come out with the ending that was used.  Still, if Cain continues this series (which it seems like she will), I'll definitely be ready to read the next installment...

08/06/2008

Book Review - Heartsick by Chelsea Cain

Category Book Review Chelsea Cain Heartsick

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I ended up reading Heartsick by Chelsea Cain as a prep for a review of her follow-on novel Sweetheart.  Having never heard of this author, I wasn't sure how much I would enjoy the series.  Turns out it hooked me solid.  Cain did an outstanding job in her debut as a crime thriller novelist, and it didn't hurt that all the action takes place in the city I live in, either.

Archie Sheridan is a Portland police detective with a rather nasty history.  He was lured into a meeting with a female serial killer, Gretchen Lowell, and she proceeded to take him to the brink of death before bringing him back to life and turning herself over to the police.  Turns out she's killed 200 people, but no one knows the names and victims of them all.  She'll only reveal the names and places to Sheridan one at a time during his weekly visits with her in the Oregon State Penitentiary.  The problem is that Sheridan has an emotional attachment to her, crossing the line into an addiction.  His personal life is in shambles, as the torture during his captivity messed him up both physically and mentally.  He's hooked on painkillers, and his wife and children take a back seat to his fascination with Lowell.  Sheridan is brought back onto the job to help capture a different serial killer who is killing young sophomore high school girls.  He enlists the help of a young newspaper reporter, Susan Ward, to give the case some press play to lure the killer into the open.  Ward's own personal history comes into play as she follows Sheridan around, narrowing in on a shrinking number of suspects who had access to the girls.  The more Sheridan digs around, the more likely it is that Ward is a key to solving the killings...

Having the story set in Portland Oregon automatically drew me in, as I could readily imagine the scenes and locations.  It took awhile to figure out how Lowell came into play, as she was in prison during all the current killings.  It was tempting to think that somehow she was driving them, but then I realized that her role was more along the lines of explaining Sheridan's life.  Their time together during his captivity is told in flashbacks during the course of the book, and the torture scenes are highly graphic.  It's still somewhat unclear as to why she was driven to kill others so easily, as well as why she was fascinated with Sheridan.  But the mix of the current crime and the psychological twists of his past made for a story that wasn't easy to put off to the side.

I am definitely looking forward to reading the next installment...

08/05/2008

And if you *really* want to say thanks to an Amazon reviewer who's part of the Amazon Associate program...

Category Book Reviewing

...  you can start any and all of your Amazon shopping experiences by clicking on one of their blog reviews to get to the Amazon site.

The Amazon Associate program is a paid referral program run by Amazon.  It's designed to drive traffic and sales to their sites by getting people to link to items on Amazon using an Associate ID code in the URL.  When you click through one of those URL links to Amazon, anything you purchase during that browser session (even items that weren't linked) earn the referrer a commission.  Here's a URL link for an example:

http://www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/ASIN/0981697801/duffbertsrand-20

This is a link to a book review I did for Roseanna's Reply.  At the end of the URL, you'll see my Amazon Associate ID of duffbertsrand-20.  If you click through using that link and purchase the book, it will count as a referral sale in my account.  In addition, if you also decide to pick up three other books, a new camera, and a DVD or two during the same session, they'll also count as referral sales.  Even if you *don't* purchase the main item you clicked through to get to Amazon, the other items purchased during that session still count for referral sales.

So are we talking retirement money here?  At my level, no.  Commissions are calculated on a monthly basis.  Under the Performance plan (the one I use), the commissions get higher based on the number of items purchased:
Total Items Shipped
Referral Rates
(All Categories except Consumer Electronics)
1 - 6
4.00%
7 - 30
6.00%
31 - 110
6.50%
111 - 320
7.00%
321 - 630
7.50%
631 - 1570
8.00%
1571 - 3130
8.25%
3131 +
8.50%


For instance, say you purchase a $10 DVD.  If I've only referred 2 items that month, I'd get a commission of 40 cents.  If later in the month I refer 10 more items, I'll now see 60 cents from your purchase.  At the beginning of the month, all the totals reset to zero and we start over.

You'll see some of the major tech blogs do this when they review a new gadget.  They have an Amazon Associate ID and they'll link the item to the Amazon page.  If you're getting a million hits a day and a couple hundred people buy the item in question at the 4% constant rate for electronics, you can see how well that might contribute to the bottom line of running a site like Boing Boing.  In my case, the best I've ever done is the 6.5% range for a month.  I think that added up to $75 or so as someone had purchased a rather substantial item during that time.

For those who wonder, no...  I can't tie you to your purchase (unless you tell me).  I can see what was purchased on a given day, but there's no association with the buyer.  I do have a few people (thank you!) who start all their Amazon shopping through one of my links, and it's a nice treat to hit the Associate site in the morning and find 3 or 4 new items purchased over the last 24 hours.  I may wonder who bought *that* DVD or book, but unless you IM or email me, your anonymity is assured.  Just don't blog a review of it later thinking I won't make the association...  :)

Again, this is a (very) tangible way to say thanks to those sites you appreciate.  Your cost is the same at Amazon regardless of whether an Associate referral is used or not.  All things being equal, I'd prefer give back if it's not going to cost me anything.  :)

08/05/2008

Want to make an Amazon reviewer happy?

Category Book Reviewing

(and no,  this is not a thinly veiled request for votes...)

If you've read my blog for any amount of time, you know I have, on occasion, posted a book review or two (thousand) here.  In addition to posting it here on my blog, I also cross-post it on Amazon under that particular item's sales page.  Associated with that Amazon reviewing process comes a Reviewer Ranking, some mysterious witches brew calculation composed of eye of newt and toe of frog.  This number ranks you somewhere between 1 and 2000000+ in the entire population of people who have submitted reviews.  The exact formula is not revealed by Amazon, so as to attempt to prevent gaming of the system.  Even so, gaming abounds, and it's a popular pastime among reviewer to figure out how the system works, who's cheating, and who's for real.

As of this writing, I'm currently sitting at #64.  Others who you might know from blogs and Twitter also play around with Amazon reviews, such as Esther Schindler (currently at #495) and Gregg Eldred (currently at #46186) to name but a few that I know of.  One of the primary ways that these ranking points accumulate is through the Helpful/Not Helpful buttons at the bottom of the person's review on Amazon:

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In this example, Gregg reviewed the book The Downhill Lie: A Hacker's Return to a Ruinous Sport by Carl Hiaasen.  If you had read the review on his blog, you would have seen a link that would take you to the Amazon page for this book.  On his review at the bottom, you'll see a line labeled "Was this review helpful to you?" followed by a Yes and a No button.  When you click on either of these, the results show up at the top of the review as "X of Y people found the following review helpful".  It's the accumulation of Helpful (or Yes) votes that cause a reviewer to climb in the rankings.  Likewise, a certain combination of more Not Helpful (or No) votes can cause a decrease in ranking.  Theory has it that many more elements come into play in addition to this, but it's the prime driver.

So...  If you see a review on a blog or a tweet from someone like Gregg or Esther that you really liked, feel free to click on the Yes button.  I guess "No" is an option also, but it's often hard to tell exactly *why* someone thought the review wasn't helpful.  Did they honestly think the review was not helpful?  Did they not like the book?  Did they not agree with the review's opinion of the book?  Do they not agree with the review's religious or political leanings?  Do they get a kick out of giving a negative vote to *any* review the person does?  Unfortunately, all these reasons (and more) come into play with the voting.

Why do we do this?  Why do we give Amazon something of value (our opinion) for free?  Are our lives defined by our ranking on Amazon?  For normal people (and yes, I *do* consider myself normal in *this* particular context), it's a fun hobby.  We like to write, we like to share, the feedback is great, and it's an amusing way to keep score.  There *is* obsession out there (just look at the #1 "reviewer" and tell me that's normal/a single person/not a fraud), and it's sorta sad and pathetic.  But for those of us for whom writing is a significant part of our personal and professional lives, there's no better way to get practice in the art of putting (virtual) pen to (virtual) paper.

So next time you see Esther or Gregg post or tweet a review of something on Amazon, take the extra second or two to thank them with a Yes vote if you appreciate their work.  It doesn't cost a thing, it only takes a second or two, and it's a nice way to say thanks.

08/04/2008

Book Review - Love Over Scotland by Alexander McCall Smith

Category Book Review Alexander McCall Smith Love Over Scotland

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OK...  So now I'm up-to-date with all the 44 Scotland Street novels since I completed Love Over Scotland last night.  Alexander McCall Smith weaves together the lives of the occupants at 44 Scotland Street with all their charm and quirkiness.  The best part is I'm already on hold at the library for the next installment due out in the next month.  :)

When we last left the residents of 44 Scotland Street, things were not well in terms of them all keeping in touch.  Bruce was leaving for London, Domenica was leaving to study pirates, and Pat was moving out since Bruce was selling the flat.  Here we continue on with the life and times of the crew.  Bruce is completely missing in action here.  Unless he makes a reappearance in the next installment, his character is gone.  Bertie is still being smothered by Mummy and analyzed by the therapist (who Bertie thinks is absolutely crazy).  All he wants is to live the life of a normal six year old, but that's not Irene's plan.  She has him auditioning for the Edinburgh teen symphony.  Bertie's attempt at sabotage goes awry, however, and that leads to a few adventures that no one counted on.  Pat is smitten by a boy she hardly knows from college, but there's a problem.  His girlfriend happens to be Pat's flatmate at the new house, and she's rather possessive of Wolf.  Matthew, Pat's boss at the art gallery, wants desperately to connect with Pat, but Pat wants nothing more than friendship... or so she thinks.

Angus is mourning the loss of Domenica to the Malacca Straits and her pirate study.  Domenica's friend moves into the flat to watch it while Domenica is gone, and Angus is not quite sure how he feels about this new "friend".  He also has a minor crisis of his own when Cyrus, his faithful four-legged companion, is dog-napped.  Add in a few more side stories involving Big Lou and Bertie's dad (and the "recovered" car), and things are as strange as ever on 44 Scotland Street.

If you've read the other two installments and enjoyed them, you'll probably like this one too.  There's a bit less activity at the building itself, but all the characters continue to evolve and grow (except as noted for Bruce).  If you're coming into the series without that prior background, you'll probably wonder what's going on.  As with the first two books, there's no real "beginning" and "end" to the story.  It's just a slice of life with room for another installment at the end.  Personally, 44 Scotland Street has now become a home away from home, and I look forward to the ongoing adventures of the group.

08/03/2008

Book Review - How'd You Score That Gig?: A Guide to the Coolest Jobs-and How to Get Them by Alexandra Levit

Category Book Review Alexandra Levit How'd You Score That Gig?: A Guide to the Coolest Jobs-and How to Get Them

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One of the toughest times in life is getting to that stage where you're expected to go out on your own and make a living, but yet you don't have a clue as to what your dream job would be (or at least a *realistic* dream job).  Alexandra Levit helps to cut through some of that confusion in her book How'd You Score That Gig?: A Guide to the Coolest Jobs-and How to Get Them.  Using this book as a guide, you can start to move in a particular direction where your passion and personality meshes with your occupation.

Contents:
Self-Assessment
The Adventurer: Conservationist; Documentary Photographer; ESL Teacher; Foreign Service Officer; News Correspondent; Oceanographer; Outdoor Adventure Guide; Travel Journalist
The Creator: Actor; Book Author; Fashion Designer; Interior Designer; Landscape Architect; Movie Screenwriter; Performance Musician; Restaurant Chef; Video Game Designer
The Data Head: Computational Linguist; Environmental Engineer; Financial Adviser; Information Security Specialist; Meteorologist; Pharmaceutical Scientist; Urban Planner
The Entrepreneur: Bed-and-Breakfast Innkeeper; Blogger; Boutique Owner; Event Planner; Health Club Owner; Internet-based Business Owner; Inventor; Pet Sitter; Professional Organizer
The Investigator: Antiques Dealer; Art Curator; Classic Car Restorer; Criminologist; Field Archaeologist; Forensic Scientist; Futurist; Historian; Psychology Lab Assistant
The Networker: Book Editor; Congressional Staffer; Image Consultant; Lobbyist; Marketing Executive; Pro Sports Team Manager; Speechwriter; Talent Agent; Television Producer; Wine Merchant
The Nurturer: Doula; Elementary School Teacher; Life Coach; Nonprofit Administrator; Nutritionist; Physical Therapist; Social Services Caseworker; Zoologist
Afterword; Acknowledgments; Bibliography

Levit starts out with a short self-assessment test.  It's designed to root out your likes and dislikes, with the goal towards placing you in one (or more) of the main categories listed above.  After you score the test and determine your type(s), there's a brief description of the personality attributes for those types, along with a list of jobs that they would quite often do well in.  Once finished, you can start exploring the job write-ups in your particular area of interest.

Each job write-up gives a realistic sense of what to expect.  There are quotes from people who currently do that job, explaining what they like and don't like about it.  She explains the general requirements of the job, the type of work to expect, resources to get more information, and most important (for many), how much one could expect in terms of pay.  As you'll quickly learn, it may be that the money you want to be able to earn doesn't normally come to those in a particular occupation.  Don't expect to be pulling down $100K a year as a social services caseworker, for example.  But to some, the emotional and psychological pay-offs of the job offer far greater compensation than the actual paycheck.  Figuring this out beforehand can save you some time and effort (and heartache) when picking a career path.

I would expect that most people reading this would be the 20-somethings who are trying to figure out their place in the world.  But, if  you're approaching retirement or looking to make a career switch, this book will also serve you well in terms of decision-making for the Career 2.0 phase of your life.

08/03/2008

Book Review - Daily Life in the New Testament by James W. Ermatinger

Category Book Review James W. Ermatinger

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When reading any book that is outside of your particular culture or time period, it helps to understand exactly what the society was like at that time and place.  Nowhere is this more important than when reading the Bible.  Daily Life in the New Testament by James W. Ermatinger goes back those days surrounding the birth of Jesus to explain the social, economic, and political settings that shaped the environment of the New Testament.

Contents:
Geographical and Historical Overview; Daily Life of Geographical Groups in Palestine; Nonreligious Influences - Language, Art, and Hellenistic Culture; Pre-Messianic Judaism - Worship and Temple Practices; Expectations of the Messiah; Trades and Professions; Rural Life and Urban Life; Family Life and Living Conditions; Roman Occupation; Conclusion; Glossary; Bibliography; Index

One of the problems I have when reading Biblical accounts is not being able to accurately fill in the background.  What was the prevailing mood of the people in relation to their government?  How much of a role did religion play in the daily lives of the people?  What sort of jobs were common and/or looked down upon?  Daily Life helps me make that leap from plain words to words in context.  For instance, we view Jesus's role of Messiah through the context of hindsight and 2000 years of history.  But back then, it was all happening real-time with no indication of how it would all turn out.  Knowing that different groups (Sadducees, Pharisees, Zealots, Essenes) all had a different view of what a messiah would be, helps to understand why Jesus was not necessarily viewed with favor among the various religious and political factions.  Some wanted a military Messiah who would vanquish their oppressors.  Others wanted a religious Messiah who would purify the Jewish religion.  When Jesus didn't meet either of those extreme views, people got confused...

It's best to approach this as a reference book, not a narrative along the lines of "a day in the life of..."  While the reading isn't exactly riveting narrative, it does present facts and ideas in a fairly concise manner.  I'd consider it one of those titles you should have on hand if you're trying to add some color and context to a difficult Biblical passage...

08/02/2008

Product Review - Logitech MX Air Rechargeable Cordless Air Mouse

Category Product Review Logitech MX Air Rechargeable Cordless Air Mouse

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As part of the Amazon Vine review program, I received a review unit of the Logitech MX Air Rechargeable Cordless Air Mouse.  This is one of those items that sounds interesting in concept, but it takes a bit of work to get comfortable with it.  I definitely will keep and use it, especially in certain circumstances.  But I don't know that it will replace the current optical mouse that I use...

The feature that sets the MX Air apart from other mice is the fact that it can function as both a desktop mouse and an "air" mouse.  If you pick up the mouse and hold it like a remote control, you still have full control over the cursor activity on the screen.  The left and right mouse buttons blend into the overall flow of the mouse design, and it takes just a slight amount of pressure to activate them.  The mouse wheel, a feature I can't live without in a mouse, is replaced by a touch-sensitive strip that allows you to slide your finger up and down to get the screen to scroll.  You can also press on the upper or lower range of the strip to get continuous scrolling.  Underneath the touch strip are four buttons that are set to navigate back, navigate forward, start/stop video, and control the volume.  The start/stop button also allows you to "freeze" the cursor on the screen so  you can reposition your hand without having the cursor react.

When I first started using it as an air mouse, my cursor was all over the place.  Any slight shake or tremor in your hand will, of course, show up as cursor movement.  I found that trying to hit smaller targets on the screen wasn't exactly a piece of cake.  I got better at it, but it's still not a natural sensation.  Also, due to the strangeness of not resting your hand on the desk, the mouse wheel and buttons were a bit harder to control as you had to think about what you were doing.  Again, it got better with use, but still isn't completely smooth yet.  The fact that it can also be used as a regular desktop mouse is nice, in that you don't always have to be holding it.  At that point, it starts to become a simple matter of whether it feels good in your hand.  I've been a bit spoiled with my MX Revolution mouse, so I can't say that this would be my first choice to replace my normal desktop mouse.

Where the MX Air would really shine is during presentations.  Just think...  You could roam around a bit, have a real application up and running, and still maintain some level of control without having to bend over or sit down.  Granted, keyboard input would still bring you back to your laptop, but other than that, you can interact much more freely with the audience.  Given that I do present on occasion, this will likely become part of my techno travel bag.  I just have to remember to practice with it occasionally, otherwise the effect on the screen could be more distracting than useful.

08/02/2008

I am now a proud GONAD!

Category IBM/Lotus Humor

This is such a proud and humbling moment...

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Want to join me?  Apply here!

08/02/2008

Product Review - Remington Short Cut Clipper

Category Product Review Remington Short Cut Clipper

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As part of the Amazon Vine program, I recently received a review unit of the Remington Short Cut Clipper.  Being somewhat "follicly challenged", I thought this might be a quick and easy way to keep my hair trimmed to its shorter length without having to beg and plead for the wife to give me a hair cut.  Generally speaking, it works pretty well.  I probably should have started out with a setting of 2 rather than 1.5, as 1.5 is quite a bit shorter than I normally go...

The idea here is that you can cut your hair with the same motions you'd use to brush it.  The cutting head is curved, so you have more surface contact as you move across your hair.  There's less of a chance for gouges and bald spots.  There's also a pop-out trimmer on the top that you can use to get hairlines cut properly.  After the initial charge, I started brushing away to see what would happen.  In the course of about five minutes, I was the proud owner of a haircut that wouldn't be out of place on a Marine base after six weeks of basic training.  My wife came in and went over a few places where I hadn't gotten the same level of cut and/or couldn't see.  We both agreed that her hair cuts are better using a trimmer with a #2 attachment.  

On the plus side, it is tailored for the short-all-over hair styles, and it works well in that niche.  It's best to make sure you're standing over a sink or on a towel to catch some of the hair that falls.  The style of the attachment does catch a fair amount of the hair, and you can simply pop it off to empty it out every couple of minutes.  On the down side, it can leave some uneven patches on the shorter settings if you don't happen to have a perfectly spherical noggin.  I have a couple of small bumps on my head that have less hair than the surrounding territory now...

This won't replace my wife's efforts, as her results are better.  But with a higher length setting, this could be ideal for those 3rd week touch-ups to keep from waking up with strange parts in my hair.  And if you're the type that goes for the nearly bald/razor stubble look, then this would be ideal for getting and keeping your hair (or lack thereof) at that perfect length.

08/02/2008

Book Review - Waiter Rant: Thanks for the Tip--Confessions of a Cynical Waiter by Waiter

Category Book Review Waiter Rant: Thanks for the Tip--Confessions of a Cynical Waiter

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So as part of the Amazon Vine review program, I got an Advanced Reader Copy of the book Waiter Rant: Thanks for the Tip--Confessions of a Cynical Waiter by the anonymously named "Waiter".  He's the voice behind the WaiterRant.com blog, and this is a mix of his story, his background, the people he worked (and works) with, as well as a few tips on how to get better service.  It's an entertaining read, but it does seem to be a bit unfocused at times.  I wasn't sure if I was getting a look at the industry, a look at him, or a look at myself.

Contents:
Amici's; The Sacred and Profane; Fascists and Freshwater Ostrich; Waiter Jedi; Paupery; The Box of Chocolate Saint; Big Brother; The Back Alley of Affluence; The Tip's the Thing; Why Be A Waiter?; A Little Knowledge Is a Dangerous Thing; Filth; I Hate Mother's Day; Vengeance Is Mine; Snapshots; Heaven and Hell; Substance Abuse; The Fourth of July; Russell Crowe and Me; If It Can Go Wrong, It Will; Demons; Throwing in the Apron; Epilogue; 40 Tips on How to Be a Good Customer; 50 Ways to Tell You're Working in a Bad Restaurant; Items a Waiter Should Carry at All Times

Waiter starts out by sharing his story of how he ended up waiting tables.  His initial plans involved becoming a priest, and he was enrolled in seminary.  That slowly came to an end as he saw too much hypocrisy, as well as discovering that he really didn't want to live a celibate lifestyle.  Using his psychology major, he found work at a psychiatric and drug-rehab clinic.  That one didn't last too long, as the corporate parent was convicted of fraud and much of the staff lost their jobs.  A few jobs later, he was the office manager for a small outpatient psychiatric clinic.  This only lasted until the owners started playing rather loose with the laws, and fired him for not playing the game.  At the end of his rope, his brother offered to get  him a waiter job at the restaurant he worked at, just until he could get things back together.

Guess who never left the industry?

Through the book, you follow Waiter as he starts at the bottom of the ladder, struggling to figure things out.  He paints vivid pictures of the dysfunctional people who tend to gravitate to the restaurant business, and how he had to learn to adjust to and work with them.  He ends up as manager of a upper-class NY eatery, but being the "boss" isn't all it's cracked up to be.  Surly coworkers, outrageous customers, and a nutcase owner all combine to push him to the edge of sanity.  He leaves the restaurant after he signs his book deal, while also being set up to be fired by the owner's cousin.  He's still a waiter, but at a new place with fewer management responsibilities and more time to write and experience life.

It'd be hard not to have an abundance of material to write about.  He does a great job in telling stories, while also giving us a glimpse of what we (the customer) look like to them.  I guess I was expecting a bit more along the lines of "here's what you should be doing as a customer", as that's sort of the way the promotional blurb sets up the book.  While there is some of that to be sure, there's also plenty of philosophizing about his particular status in life, the coworkers he runs across, and of course, we the customer.  That mix tends to bounce around a lot, with some parts being very light and funny, while others are rather dark and depressing.  Of course, he'd probably say "that's right...  welcome to my world!".

I would have done better if I mentally framed the book as a waiter's story about himself with tips thrown in, rather than a book of how to get better service in a restaurant told through the life story of an anonymous waiter.  It's a subtle thing, but it affected my expectations.  Still, from just the pure pleasure of entertaining reading, this book delivers very well.  It'd get about an 18% tip on the receipt.

07/31/2008

Book Review - Upgrade Your Life: The Lifehacker Guide to Working Smarter, Faster, Better by Gina Trapani

Category Book Review Gina Trapani Upgrade Your Life: The Lifehacker Guide to Working Smarter Faster Better

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I remember reading the first edition of Gina Trapani's Upgrade Your Life: The Lifehacker Guide to Working Smarter, Faster, Better and thinking how wonderful it was.  Of course, when the second edition came out, I had to get that one too.  And as with the first one, I have all sorts of post-it notes scattered throughout the book for reference and "go back and try this" notes.  Well worth the time and money you spend here.

Contents:
Control Your Email; Organize Your Data; Trick Yourself into Getting Done; Clear Your Mind; Firewall Your Attention; Streamline Common Tasks; Automate Repetitive Tasks; Get Your Data To Go; Master The Web; Hone Your Computer Survival Skills; Manage Multiple Computers; Index

Over the span of the chapters above, Trapani presents 116 different "hacks" that you can incorporate into your daily computer life to, well...  work smarter, faster, and better.  As with most books that are a compilation of different tips, some will resonate strongly with your current needs, while others are skimming material that may not be relevant.  For instance, the hacks in the first chapter, Organize Your Data, hit home.  I'm working towards consolidating multiple email addresses with Gmail, and I'm cutting down the number of folders I have, relying on search to find what I need.  Master The Web also had some cool tricks, like having multiple home pages in Firefox and using Google Notebook for web clippings.  I wasn't quite into the Managing Multiple Computers as much, as my current setup doesn't call for that.  Still, it's good information to have around should you need it at a later time.

I actually found a couple different things occurring as I read through the material.  There were hacks where some software was presented that did a certain task, and I'd realize I've been looking for something just like that.  Similar to scratching an itch that you couldn't quite reach.  Then there were the hacks that opened your eyes to whole areas you didn't even know you needed.  Let's call that finding AND scratching the itch you didn't know you had five minutes prior.  After going through some of the Automate Repetitive Tasks hacks, I have started to look at a lot of things I do with a view towards eliminating the manual repetitive effort that I just accepted as necessary before.

I highly recommend this book to everyone who spends most of their waking hours in front of a computer, and/or earn their living in front of one.  Taking away even a small handful of nuggets can radically change the way you do things.

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Thomas "Duffbert" Duff

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