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

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10/31/2009

Book Review - Free: The Future of a Radical Price by Chris Anderson

Category Book Review Chris Anderson Free: The Future of a Radical Price
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On the internet, the word "free" is often used to describe products and ideas.  But what does "free" really mean, and how can you make a living if no one wants to actually pay money for what you produce?  Chris Anderson seeks to clear up some of that confusion in his book Free: The Future of a Radical Price.  After reading Free, I have a much better idea of how "free" fits into a business and marketing strategy, and how it can actually lead to higher sales of things that aren't gratis...

Contents:
Prologue; The Birth of Free
Part 1 - What Is Free?: Free 101; The History of Free; The Psychology of Free
Part 2 - Digital Free: Too Cheap To Matter; "Information Wants To Be Free"; Competing With Free; De-Monetization; The New Media Models; How Big Is The Free Economy?
Part 3 - Freeconomics And The Free World: Econ 000; Nonmonetary Economies; Waste Is (Sometimes) Good; Free World; Imagining Abundance; "You Get What You Pay For"
Coda; Free Rules; Freemium Tactics; Fifty Business Models Built On Free; Acknowledgments; Index

Anderson starts out by explaining the different meanings of "free".  It would seem that definitions would be unnecessary, but I found that it really helped clarify my thinking behind what is meant when people say something is free.  There's the direct cross-subsidy "free" (get something in hopes that you'll pay for something else), the three-party market "free" (you get something for free because someone else pays for it to get your attention), the freemium "free" (a basic version of something in hopes you'll upgrade to a paid premium version), and the non-monetary "free" (something that is just given away with no expectation of payment).  That last form of free can be either a gift (like contributions to Wikipedia), labor exchange (I do something to get something in return), or piracy (I take something for free that is supposed to be paid for).  I found all these discussions immensely useful, as they clarified what one can expect when drawn into a discussion of how you can afford to give away something and still expect to make money.  

Of course, there are those on the other side who insist nothing is free, and Anderson also takes on those arguments.  The "You Get What You Pay For" chapter does a good job in summarizing the arguments and applying much of the material found in the book.  Again, I found it useful in that it allowed me to think through the concepts and take them from theoretical knowledge to practical application.  If I were to choose to do something "for free", how best could I expect to benefit from that, either monetarily or emotionally...  And if I needed any examples on how to structure a business based on these concepts, the "Fifty Business Models Built On Free" does an excellent job in giving concrete illustrations of how "free" can fit into a business and benefit it.

Free was, for me, a worthwhile read.  I now understand better what and why companies "give stuff away", and what the motive behind it might well be.

Disclosure:
Obtained From: Publisher
Payment: Free

10/31/2009

Book Review - The Year of Living like Jesus: My Journey of Discovering What Jesus Would Really Do by Ed Dobson

Category Book Review Ed Dobson The Year of Living like Jesus: My Journey of Discovering What Jesus Would Really Do
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One of the first books I read and reviewed as part of the Amazon Vine program was A. J. Jacobs' The Year of Living Biblically.  It somehow seemed fitting to also select Ed Dobson's The Year of Living like Jesus: My Journey of Discovering What Jesus Would Really Do when it showed up as a selection on Amazon Vine.  Whereas I thought Jacobs stayed true to his premise in the book, I felt Dobson missed the boat on that criteria.  That's not to say that there aren't things to learn in Living Like Jesus.  I just don't think the actual journey lived up to the title.

Ed Dobson is an evangelical pastor with ALS, and he's to the point where he can see the end of his life in the next two to five years.  He made a decision that was pretty radical in its intent.... he would spend a year living like Jesus would live.  Remove all the religious trappings, remove all the labels that seem to put Jesus in a box, and come as close as you can to doing what it was that Jesus actually did.  Go to places where "religious people" are not generally found, share with others, love others...  Definitely not the type of lifestyle that's common these days.  Along the way, Dobson had to reexamine many of his beliefs, go counter to prevailing attitudes in the circles he moved in, and generally change his entire lifestyle to accomplish his goal.  

Being that there was an immediate comparison to Jacobs' book (Jacobs even wrote the forward), I was set to expect a story of how one would attempt to follow Jesus' teachings to the fullest in today's culture.  But the execution got muddled right from the start.  Do you choose to "live" like Jesus, placing yourself in a Jewish culture and trying to do the things that Jesus did in his day-to-day existence (keeping Jewish law, going to synagogue, etc.)?  Or, do you choose to live "like Jesus", and follow his teachings and his words?  It seemed to me that Dobson ended up doing a little of both, and the confusion detracted from the book.  He spends a lot of time fretting about eating kosher, wearing tassels, and growing his beard out.  Later in the book he seems to move more towards applying the teachings of Jesus, but the shift didn't work in terms of how the book was working for me at that point.  There were also pages and pages devoted to why he voted for Obama over McCain, and how that upset his evangelical friends and colleagues.  Yes, there was the discussion of how he made his decision based on his experiment, but the whole exercise went on for far too many pages given what I *thought* his year of living like Jesus was going to entail.

I was also completely confused by his continued exploration of praying the rosary, using Orthodox prayer ropes, and other forms of religious tradition along the way.  Yes, he was trying to focus more on the value and emphasis that Jesus put on prayer.  But Jesus wasn't praying with rosary beads nor using any other devices and gadgets.  He also wasn't trying to see if he could read completely through the gospels once a week or recite a small prayer thousands of times a day.  Dobson's continued focus on these rituals seemed to go *completely* against his book's premise, and as such I thought the book largely failed.

Had this book had a different title or been framed differently, it would have worked much better.  Dobson did learn quite a bit about himself and his attitude towards others, the value of prayer, and how Jesus would have lived in a culture like ours (and in the process would have upset the very groups today that think they know Him best).  And there *are* flashes of humor along the way as he learns what certain Jewish traditions entail (such as the tassels he would wear on his undershirts).  But overall, I still couldn't get past what I felt was a mismatch between the title and the content of The Year of Living Like Jesus.

Disclosure:
Obtained From: Amazon Vine Review Program
Payment: Free

10/30/2009

Book Review - The Story of American Business: From the Pages of the New York Times by Nancy F. Koehn

Category Book Review Nancy F. Koehn The Story of American Business: From the Pages of the New York Times
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One of my pet peeves about history is that we often look back at an event with a "sanitized" view of it.  There's no mention of dissent, effort, conflict, or personality.  The event happened, it turned out the way it did, and look how it shaped history.  But it's only when we start digging into the day-to-day dialogue during the event that we find what it was really like to go through it.  That's why I like this book I received from Harvard Business Press: The Story of American Business: From the Pages of the New York Times edited by Nancy F. Koehn.  Koehn takes a number of business eras and looks at them through the lens of the New York Times while the events were still fresh.  As such, you see that all things were not obvious at the time, and only in hindsight can we really "predict" how things would play out.

Contents:
Part 1 - The Corporation: The Rise of Big Business; Wall Street - Its Origins, Influence, and Evolution; Merger Mania; Leadership, Past and Present
Part 2 - The Changing Nature of Work: From Farm to Factory; The Fruits of Our Labor; The Changing Workplace
Part 3 - Defining Moments in Technology: The Transportation Revolution; Communications
Epilogue; Appendix; Notes; Index; About the Author

Each chapter starts out with a brief (7 to 10 page) overview of the topic, spanning the 1800's through the present.  There's also a high-level timeline that picks out a few key moments, and that's supplemented by a more detailed timeline in the Appendix.  From then on, the chapter is a series of articles as printed in the New York Times, from the mid-1800's to the current decade.  It's there that I found the most insight and detail as to what it must have been like to deal with change and turmoil.  The 1882 article titled "The Great Oil Monopoly" covers how the Standard Oil Company "robs" the public... sound familiar to today?  Have we learned much in 130 years?  1909 has an article titled "What Is To Be Done With the Trusts?", going into how government wants to implement anti-trust laws... things we take for granted now, but that were extremely controversial back then.  1930 has an article titled "Shift from Farm to City Goes Steadily On", where it's feared that the contemplative life will not go well with the tempo of the modern city.  And to show how fast some things change, there's a 1969 article titled "Bank Cards Thrive As Some Say No", where large retailers like Macy's, Gimbels, and Bloomingdale's refuse to take the increasingly popular "plastic credit cards" as they deem it competition to their own credit policies.  Guess we know how THAT one turned out...

One day our current economic crisis will be reduced to 2000 words in a history book, and it will "obvious" how things worked out.  The government policies will be lauded or derided as being enlightened or destructive.  But right now, there are a thousand opinions, just as many predictions, and emotions are real and often painful in terms of how it all will play out.  A book like The Story of American Business helps remind me that every era has gone through this, no one has all the answers, and you don't get to know the ending beforehand.  

Disclosure:
Obtained From: Publisher
Payment: Free

10/30/2009

Book Review - The Best Camera Is The One That's With You: iPhone Photography by Chase Jarvis

Category Book Review Chase Jarvis The Best Camera Is The One That's With You: iPhone Photography
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The Best Camera Is The One That's With You: iPhone Photography by Chase Jarvis showed up in the mail today somewhat unexpectedly.  I started to leaf through it (it's small and nearly all pictures), and was quickly distracted from whatever it was that I was supposed to be doing.  Jarvis makes the case that the best camera for a particular picture at any given time is the one you happen to have on hand. My DSLR is of little use if it's still in the camera case at home.  He shows how you can take and enhance photos using nothing but the iPhone and an iPhone app called Best Camera.  I normally don't buy many iPhone apps (in fact, all the ones I use to date are free), but I spent the $2.99 (yeah, I was feeling extravagant!) to check it out.  Between the app and this book, I'm sold.

In terms of looking for in-depth technical discussion on how the iPhone camera works and compares to other options, forget it.  Jarvis doesn't go into *any* of that.  Instead, he takes you on a photo exposition of normal scenes and images that you would probably overlook on a daily basis.  But with some decent composition (closeup, blur, cropping), you can get images that are quite striking.  Then using the Best Camera app, you can apply filters (vignette, warming, saturation, etc) that add that extra zing to the picture without taking it outside of your iPhone.  Granted, it's not PhotoShop, but then it's not meant to be.  The whole concept here is to use the camera you have to take the shots you'd normally ignore or miss.  

The images inspired me to do better, and there was one phrase that really caught my attention.  Actually, there were a couple.  "No longer do I tire of the lounge or the crappy food or the painfully long lines at the airport."  With the iPhone and imagination, you should be able to entertain yourself for hours.  "There are at least ten great pictures waiting to be taken within ten meters of where you are standing right now."  That sort of goes hand-in-hand with the other statement.  I always find myself looking for "the perfect picture", when in reality there are a lot of great pictures to be taken all around me.  It's just a matter of opening my eyes, getting out of my normal mindset, and *taking the picture*!

The Best Camera Is The One That's With You is a great little book that has me excited again about what I could do with stuff I already have with me everywhere I go...

Disclosure:
Obtained From: Publisher
Payment: Free

10/24/2009

Book Review - PostSecret: Confessions on Life, Death, and God by Frank Warren

Category Book Review Frank Warren PostSecret: Confessions on Life Death and God
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I'm not completely sure what it is that makes the PostSecret concept appeal to me so much.  I picked up the latest book, PostSecret: Confessions on Life, Death, and God by Frank Warren at the library today, and devoured it in a single sitting.  As with the website and all the other books, I felt a range of emotions as I peeked into the private lives of ordinary people sharing things that they've held close for years.  And reading these secrets made me realize that I could easily add a few of my own to the collection...

Thinking about the draw for me, the best I can come up with is the naked emotion, the raw openness of the people who send in the numerous postcards received by Warren every day.  There are people who have spent their entire lives playing "what if" with a lost love.  Others have lost loved ones and have permanent regrets over things said and done (or not done).  And because this edition has an emphasis on God and belief, there are more than a few secrets that deal with age-old questions.  But its not without some humor either.  You have to laugh at the person who works for an atheist newsletter yet secretly believes in God.  Or the person starting rabbinical school, but loves bacon.  I can see some late-night undercover trips to fast food restaurants for burgers with bacon... :)

I also admire the artistic creativity in the postcards and those who send them.  If these cards were nothing but words on a blank white space, they'd lose a lot of their impact and message.  But the pictures add to the weight of the secret.  There's the picture of a chair, where the sender confesses he was beat by his mom and dad while tied to it.  There's the receipt that a guy found in his girfriend's purse, highlighting a purchase of Trojan condoms but they've never had sex together.  And I just had to laugh at the picture of a Buddha statue on a toilet, as the sender admitted he meditated while sitting on his "throne".  Not all secrets have to be tragic or gut wrenching...

If you've never heard of PostSecret, head over to their website and check it out.  Then go get PostSecret: Confessions on Life, Death, and God for a more intense dose of what people are really like under their public veneer.

Disclosure:
Obtained From: Library

Payment: Borrowed

10/24/2009

Book Review - The Ghost Trap by K. Stephens

Category Book Review K. Stephens The Ghost Trap
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I'm trying to read a bit more out of my normal comfort zone when it comes to fiction, and as such I accepted the offer of a review copy of The Ghost Trap by K. Stephens.  Centered around the life of a lobsterman in Maine struggling with a number of issues in his life, it definitely doesn't fall into my "action/adventure" category. :)  But I'm glad I decided to read this debut novel, as the author did a very nice job on it.  I definitely felt for the main character as he fought against all the external and internal pressures crushing him down.

Jamie Eugley comes from nine generations of lobstermen working the coast of Maine, harvesting lobsters to make a living.  While out on his boat one day with his girlfriend Anja, she accidentally falls overboard and suffers brain damage from oxygen deprivation before she can be found and revived.  Eugley feels a massive load of guilt for having that happen, and decides that he will care for her as she slowly works her way back to some form of a normal life.  But her care is not cheap, she can't be left alone for long as she gets easily distracted, and Eugley wonders whether she ever will return to be the person he once loved.  While this struggle with his commitment is raging in his life, he meets a young vivacious woman working a sailing ship catering to tourists.  He wants desperately to fall in love with her and run off to the Florida Keys, but his duty to Anja keeps getting in the way.  It's also not helping that a trap war has broken out in the area, and age-old rivalries and vendettas are about to erupt into actions that could cost Eugley his livelihood and possibly his life.

Keeping in mind I'm used to plots that are fast-paced and action-packed, I enjoyed this more than I though I might.  Stephens can paint scenes and images with words very well, and getting into the characters wasn't a struggle in the least.  I felt for Anja's pain as she tried to get back to what she once was, but was continually betrayed by her brain sending her off on various distractions.  I could also empathize with Eugley, squeezed by tradition, duty, and financial pressure, tempted to just turn his back on it all and do something that *he* wanted for once.  While I was enjoying her way with words, I *did* start to wonder about halfway through where the entire plot was going, as I seemed to be missing that point of conflict that was pushing the story forward.  But it finally came together shortly after that, and things started working towards their conclusion.

Be warned... The Ghost Trap is *not* a "happy feel good" book.  The characters are all flawed, and living happily ever after is not in the cards.  Even so, Ghost Trap does get under your skin and pulls at you emotionally in ways not always common in today's literature.

Disclosure:
Obtained From: Publisher
Payment: Free

10/24/2009

Book Review - Twitter Tips, Tricks, and Tweets by Paul McFedries

Category Book Review Paul McFedries Twitter Tips Tricks and Tweets
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I've been a Twitter addict for about 18 months now, and I'd like to think I know the majority of what there is to know about how it works and what you can do with it.  But after reading Twitter Tips, Tricks, and Tweets by Paul McFedries, I realize that  you *can* teach an old dog new tricks.  I picked up a number of nuggets here that have worked their way into my Twitter consciousness, making the experience even more enjoyable.

Contents:
How Do I Get Started with Twitter?; What Can I Do to Customize My Twitter Profile?; How Do I Send Twitter Updates?; How Do I Follow Other Twitter Users?; Can I Use Twitter on My Mobile Phone?; How Do I Find Stuff in Twitter?; Where Can I Display My Twitter Feed?; How Can I Take Twitter to the Next Level?; What Tools Can I Use to Extend Twitter?; Glossary; Index

As you might expect with a book like this, it's primarily geared to the person who either has never used Twitter or who has signed up for a Twitter account but never tried it.  And for that, the book is perfect.  McFedries writes in a simple, conversational mode that appeals to someone who is unfamiliar with the technology.  Combine that with an abundance of pictures and illustrations, and I could give this to my dad as a starter guide, and he'd get it.  Even given that Twitter is an online tool that can change at any time, the information layout is such that it should age relatively well.  He focuses on concepts as well as details, and information about Twitter etiquette and how to effectively retweet don't ever go out of style.  

For those of us who *have* been using Twitter for awhile, there is still some value here.  The last two chapters reference a number of third-party sites that allow Twitter to be used in non-conventional ways (compared to just straight tweeting).  Using Twittercal to update your Google Calendar has some useful implications.  Even better is the LinkedIn Company Buzz widget that tracks tweets that mention the company (or companies) that you work(ed) for.  I'm a firm believer in keeping a finger on the pulse of what's being said about your company, and Twitter is a great way to do that in real-time.  Had it not been for this book, I might not have discovered that cool feature.

Granted, the more time that passes between the publication date and the time you read the book, the more chance there is that some of the information might become dated or just flat-out incorrect.  And yes, the geeks among us might argue that you can find all this information via web sites or researching it on your own.  But not all (potential) Twitter users are geeks, and Twitter Tips, Tricks, and Tweets is a great way to open up the door to allow those people the chance to get up to speed quickly.  And even the geeks might learn a thing or two they didn't know before...

Disclosure:
Obtained From: Amazon Vine Review Program
Payment: Free

10/24/2009

Book Review - Where I Slept: Being Homeless In Portland by Transition Projects

Category Book Review Where I Slept: Being Homeless In Portland
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Transition Projects in Portland came up with an interesting idea for a book to bring home the homelessness problem for people...  They went to people who had been on the streets, gave them disposable cameras, and told them to go take pictures of the places where they had bedded down and/or lived while homeless.  The result is this book... Where I Slept: Being Homeless In Portland.  If I keep in mind this is really a fundraising project for the organization, it's pretty good.  But if I drift back into looking at it as something more comprehensive, I tend to be somewhat less enamored with the book.

The book is divided into a number of sections, such as Under Bridges, Doorways, Among The Trees, Mobile Homes, Railways, and Hiding Places.  The image (all black and white) occupy one page, with the facing page devoted to a quote or statistic related to the homeless problem.  The book is only approximately 50 pages long, so there's not an overabundance of content here.  Couple that with a $20 price tag (and the edition being sponsored by a local realtor), and it's almost imperative that you keep the fundraising aspect in mind if you should happen to order it.  Given that I picked up my copy at the local library, I had a more difficult time trying to keep the philanthropic concept ahead of the literary view.  With no money invested in the book, it became "just another book" to me, subject to whatever whims and fancies my attitude happened to be in that day.  

Having said that, a few of the pictures are rather moving, and make you pause and think about what it would be like to spend another night sleeping on concrete and cardboard, with little comfort and less privacy.  It would be hard to walk past that bundle of blankets again on the way to work, and not wonder what story lies underneath them.  A number of the quotes and statistics were also arresting, such as in 2008 there were approximately 660000 people that were homeless on any given night.  On the other hand, the quotes by local politicians angered more than inspired me.  To hear someone like Randy Leonard wax about the seriousness of the problem, and then to see him throw fits over local stadium issues for baseball and soccer is just asinine.  Either concentrate on the real problems of society, or just shut up when it comes to talking about them.  The lip service we can do without.

If the homeless issue is one that concerns you and you want to give money to address it, ordering a copy of Where I Slept is a good way to support Transition Projects and also get an emotional tie to the local situation.  But don't buy the book expecting deep insights and analysis of the problem.  This is meant to be an emotional appeal, pure and simple.

Disclosure:
Obtained From: Library

Payment: Borrowed

10/18/2009

Book Review - Cloud Security and Privacy: An Enterprise Perspective on Risks and Compliance by Tim Mather, Subra Kumaraswamy, and Shahed Latif

Category Book Review Tim Mather Subra Kumaraswamy Shahed Latif Cloud Security and Privacy: An Enterprise Perspective on Risks and Compliance
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The biggest trend (and some would say hype) in computing today is the cloud... the ability to have software and infrastructure all housed offsite in a flexible way that allows you to instantly scale resources and only pay for what you use.  But there are so many questions that this approach raises in terms of security and privacy.  Tim Mather, Subra Kumaraswamy, and Shahed Latif take on those questions in their new book Cloud Security and Privacy: An Enterprise Perspective on Risks and Compliance.  Before you decide to put anything "in the cloud" for your organization, you really should read this book in order to fully understand the risks and rewards of moving in that direction.  

Contents:
Introduction; What Is Cloud Computing?; Infrastructure Security; Data Security and Storage; Identity and Access Management; Security Management in The Cloud; Privacy; Audit and Compliance; Examples of Cloud Service Providers; Security-As-A-[Cloud] Service; The Impact of Cloud Computing on The Role of Corporate IT; Conclusion, and The Future of The Cloud; SAS 70 Report Content Example; Systrust Report Content Example; Open Security Architecture For Cloud Computing; Glossary; Index

There's no doubt that moving to the cloud has the potential for saving an organization significant amounts of money.  But what good is saving money if you end up with major security/privacy breaches, or if your application is unreachable due to outages?  The authors do an excellent job in explaining exactly what makes up a cloud solution, as well as what considerations come into play when you decide to give up control of part of your infrastructure to someone else.  As they accurately point out, there are many cloud risks that are also present in on-premise computing solutions, such as redundancy, security, etc.  It just so happens that the cloud tends to magnify those risks because you aren't physically able to say exactly where your data is and what the cloud environment looks like.  Going through this book helps you understand those risk levels so that you can decide how best to address them *before* you ship your data off to who knows where.

I think I personally appreciated the fact that they didn't attempt to "sell" the cloud as a solution that fits everybody and every situation.  There are some instances where a cloud solution may not work due to regulatory reasons, and they point those out.  For instance, HIPAA regulations have some very stringent rules on data security and privacy on personal health information.  Given that your data stored in the cloud is not physically under your control, you may well find that you would be in violation of HIPAA regs by using a cloud solution without stringent safeguards.  You also have no control over the physical medium on which the data is stored.  If your cloud provider were to replace a drive in their storage, can you be assured that they have properly wiped the contents so as to not reveal information should the faulty device not be disposed of securely?  And how about their backup media... how and where is your data being backed up?  *IS* it being backed up?  These are the questions you need to be asking before you decide that $5 per person per month is a great deal.

There are no other books that I know of that attempt to deal with this subject as completely and as comprehensively as does Cloud Security and Privacy.  You really do owe it to your organization to read this first in order to be able to ask the right questions.  Anything less would be highly negligent on your part.

Disclosure:
Obtained From: Publisher
Payment: Free

10/17/2009

When business cliches lose their meaning... a new "paradigm"

Category Everything Else
How many of you have sat in a meeting, eagerly anticipating a parade of buzzwords to fill out your buzzword bingo cards?

Yeah, I thought so... most all of you.

Overused business cliches are so common as to be jokes now.  New paradigms, synergistic approaches, etc.  Most often, those are the moments in the talk when you can zone out and figure out what's for dinner tonight.  It usually means someone is trying to inflate one of their ideas to take on an importance that they'd lack if described in one syllable words.  When you can program this same verbal misdirection on a website via a buzzword generator, you know it's time to find something else to do.

But I'm noticing there are another set of phrases, also often used in the business world, that are starting to lose any link to reality.  These are the "motivational" phrases.  These wordbites are used to spur the workforce on, usually during times of stress and pressure, to deliver ever-higher levels of output and productivity.

"We have to work smarter, not harder."

"We have to become lean and mean."

"We have to learn to do more with less."

Here's my problem with them...  Nearly everyone has heard them ad nauseum, so they no longer convey any new, revolutionary concept that cause you to sit back and say WOW!.  Furthermore, they are often used *after* some event has occurred (like layoffs) which mean you really have no choice because the work is going to keep on coming anyway.  You're just going to get more of it than you did before.  And finally (and the most frustrating), the statements are repeated on a regular basis, unfortunately after yet another event has occurred (again!) to make the workload even heavier.

The reality is plain... The economy sucks, cost pressures are high, business survival (or worse, Wall Street expectations and executive bonuses) are in doubt...  Any marginally-engaged person with a job should understand that.  People are usually one of the highest costs of doing business, and it's one of the areas that will always be under pressure when it comes to reduce those costs.  Instead of throwing out motivational phrases that aren't, let's instead just put it in plain language.  We can't afford the levels of staff we currently have and still meet our budget.  Those remaining will need to pick up additional work.  Where possible, stop doing things that don't matter.  If you disagree on what "doesn't matter", push back.  And ultimately, it's up to you to either make your personal resource cover as much as you can (set limits), or opt for another environment where you think you can do better (other opportunities).

So what other motivational business phrases have ceased to have any real meaning for you?

10/17/2009

Book Review - Hacking: The Next Generation by Nitesh Dhanjani, Billy Rios, and Brett Hardin

Category Book Review Nitesh Dhanjani Billy Rios Brett Hardin Hacking: The Next Generation
A picture named M2

I've read my share of hacking books over the years, and usually most of the books focus on the same topics... pointer overflows, brute force password hacks, etc.  But with all the movement towards Web 2.0, the Cloud, and social networks, is it possible that hacking vectors have shifted somewhat into areas we don't normally worry about?  After reading Hacking: The Next Generation by Nitesh Dhanjani, Billy Rios, and Brett Hardin, the answer is definitely yes.  There's a whole new series of things to worry about, both from a corporate and a personal level.

Contents:
Intelligence Gathering: Peering Through the Windows to Your Organization
Inside-Out Attacks: The Attacker Is the Insider
The Way It Works: There Is No Patch
Blended Threats: When Applications Exploit Each Other
Cloud Insecurity: Sharing the Cloud with Your Enemy
Abusing Mobile Devices: Targeting Your Mobile Workforce
Infiltrating the Phishing Underground: Learning from Online Criminals?
Influencing Your Victims: Do What We Tell You, Please
Hacking Executives: Can Your CEO Spot a Targeted Attack?
Case Studies: Different Perspectives
Chapter 2 Source Code Samples
Cache_Snoop.pl
Index

Yes, the deeply technical hacks still exist, the ones that rely on badly coded software to gain privileges you aren't granted.  But in some ways, the hacks are getting easier, or at least more available to those who are not hardcore techheads.  Take for instance, blended threats.  This is an interesting concepts that shows how interconnected software environments have become.  In the example they use, Microsoft had a minor vulnerability in XP and Vista, while Apple had a minor vulnerability in their Safari browser.  Both vendors didn't feel that either item was critical.  That changed (at least for Microsoft) when someone used the behavior in Safari running on Windows to place a dll file on the Windows desktop.  This dll file was then used by IE7 when starting up, overriding the use of the real dll in the proper Window directories.  You can imagine how this would lead to "undesirable consequences."  

And if that's not enough, imagine the potential of hacks in the Cloud.  The authors show how one could hack an administration console to a Cloud provider, allowing someone to modify a number of parameters of a Cloud account.  Or... if your attack target runs on the Cloud and is charged based on bandwidth and CPU, imagine what you could do to this target if you were to launch a distributed denial of service attack using the Cloud as the attacking client.  The resources are almost limitless, and the target will get hit with charges that escalate at an incredible rate.  Not a comforting thought if you've trusted your business to "the Cloud"...

I also noticed that more and more, hacking is not so much about taking over hardware as it is about getting a pipeline to timely information.  For instance, more and more people are using shared and public calendars to manage their daily work.  It's not uncommon to be able to search and find conference call details that aren't removed from the entry.  If you find this info, it's very possible that you can call in to the number, remain on mute, and pick up vital information that can be of value to you or other companies.  This type of hack isn't technical in the least.  It's just a mix of Google searching and ignorant/non-cautious users.

I'd really recommend Hacking: The Next Generation to my fellow techies.  More important than learning new ways to mess with each other's minds, it will expose you to a number of new attack vectors that you may not have considered.  And in most cases, simple awareness of those new vectors is enough to allow you to start to defend against them.

Disclosure:
Obtained From: Publisher
Payment: Free

10/17/2009

Book Review - The U.S. Army Survival Manual: Department of the Army Field Manual 21-76

Category Book Review The U.S. Army Survival Manual: Department of the Army Field Manual 21-76
A picture named M2

After reading this book, I almost want to go out and get lost somewhere... The U.S. Army Survival Manual: Department of the Army Field Manual 21-76.  Ulysses Press has reprinted the US Army Survival Manual and made it available to those of us who didn't decide to give up at least four years of their lives to visit other countries.  With some prior study and this book in hand, I think your odds of surviving out in the wild would go up dramatically.  Of course, you'll have to get over the thing about eating bugs and various plants, however...

Contents:
Introduction: General; Individual and Group Survival; Health and First Aid
Orientation and Traveling: Navigation; Selecting Your Route on the Ground
Water: General Considerations; Finding Water
Food: General Considerations; Vegetable Foods; Animal Foods
Firemaking and Cooking: Firemaking; Cooking Wild Food
Survival in Special Areaa: General Considerations; Cold Weather Areas; In Jungle and Tropical Areas; In Desert Areas; At Sea
Hazards to Survival
References
Index

Overall, this book is pretty complete, which is what I'd expect from an Army survival guide.  It's not meant to be a complete course in survival, assuming absolutely no skills to start with.  Instead, there's a basic assumption of certain skills already possessed, such as map and compass reading, camouflage, sanitation, and other general military skills.  In addition, the goal in all the survival information is to "make it back."  Therefore, it's not as if you're expected to set up camp and maintain a presence for days or weeks.  Instead, the material is focused on being able to do what is necessary to survive long enough to make it back to safety.

I think what surprised me most is how much plant life is edible when found and prepared properly.  Plants I'd normally pass by, such as seaweed, bamboo, or cattails, can actually make for decent food and nutrition when it comes right down to it.  And if that frog in the back yard is keeping you awake at night?  Well, he *could* end up as a midnight snack if you're so inclined.  But more seriously, I'd probably want to spend time *before* getting lost using this book and at least one other resource to fully understand some of the plant choices.  Since the illustrations are all black and white sketches, it's not necessarily a simple matter to match up the plant you're looking at with the picture you're viewing.  I believe you'd have more success if you read this book, and then spent time online looking for color illustrations of the particular plants.  Between that and perhaps jotting some notes in the margins, you'll be able to pick out the food sources more quickly (and most importantly, more *accurately*) when it really matters.

The U.S. Army Survival Manual may not be one of those books you look at every day, but if you pack it (or memorize it) when you head out to the wilderness, your odds of "making it back" if things go wrong will increase dramatically.

Disclosure:
Obtained From: Publicist
Payment: Free

10/17/2009

Book Review - Ends of the Earth: A Bug Man Novel by Tim Downs

Category Book Review Tim Downs Ends of the Earth: A Bug Man Novel
A picture named M2

It's been awhile since I visited Tim Downs and his Bug Man series.  But his latest, Ends of the Earth: A Bug Man Novel, recently showed up at our library, so I got on the hold list.  I forgot how much I enjoyed these books.  Interesting (and quirky) characters, enjoyable dialogue, and some situations that make you think about how at-risk our food supply might be to terror attacks.

Nick Polchak, the series' forensic entomologist (aka, the Bug Man), is called upon to check out a crime scene.  A farmer with a rather sordid history was found shot in the back, and Nick was using the insects found in the wound to narrow down the time of death.  The case is a bit complicated, however.  There's a bale of marijuana by the body, and the bugs found there do not match up with what Nick would expect.  And when Nick finds the unexpected, he becomes consumed in finding the explanation.  The deeper he digs into the case and his bugs, the more it looks as if someone is attempting to launch a pest infestation that would have a dramatic impact on a few critical crops across America.

The subplot running throughout the story also is quite interesting and amusing... Nick was requested to investigate the case by the wife of the dead farmer, and she's someone who had feelings for Nick in the past.  Nick calls up a woman with narcotic dogs for help on the case, and she also has a thing for Nick.  Of course, Bug Man is completely oblivious to love and normal human interactions, and that leads to some interesting and amusing interactions as the two women vie for Nick's attention while trying to understand each other.

There's a number of things to like about the Bug Man novels.  Polchak is quite aware of his lack of social graces, but he really doesn't care.  This leads to some great dialogue, at times directed towards others, at other times very self-deprecating.  The two women are also humorous in their rivalry that leads to a truce and then a friendship as they both figure out how they feel about Nick.  And the ending is just typical Polchak... :)  On the more serious side, Downs makes a case in his novel on how easy it would be to launch a biological attack on crops in such a way that it would be very difficult to defend, as well as to track down the person(s) behind the attack.  

Ends of the Earth is one of those novels that is enjoyable to read on one level, while giving you a bit more to chew on if you're so inclined.  With any luck, Tim Downs already has another Bug Man novel in the works, because now I'm ready for another episode.

Disclosure:
Obtained From: Library

Payment: Borrowed

10/10/2009

Book Review - Throw Out Fifty Things: Clear the Clutter, Find Your Life by Gail Blanke

Category Book Review Gail Blanke Throw Out Fifty Things: Clear the Clutter Find Your Life
A picture named M2

This is a book I *really* needed... Throw Out Fifty Things: Clear the Clutter, Find Your Life by Gail Blanke.  I look around my office (aka, the "mancave") as well as my house, and I see plenty of "stuff" that needs to leave.  Blanke uses a very personal, chatty style of writing to walk you through her process for decluttering your life.  And beyond just the physical clutter, she also helps you "throw out" emotional clutter that may be keeping you from reaching your goals.

Contents:
Introduction: Fueling the Urge to Purge; Making It to Fifty; Getting Started
Part One - Getting Rid of the Physical Stuff: Your Bedroom; Your Bathroom; Your Kitchen; Your Living Room; Your Dining Room; Your Attic; Your Garage
Part Two - Your Office - Paring Down the Professional Clutter: Clarifying Your Brand; Keeping What Works, Eliminating What Doesn't; The Phoenix Rises from the Ashes
Part Three - Attacking the Mental Mess: If You Think You Can Separate the Physical from the Mental Clutter, Forget About It!; Letting Go of Feeling Inadequate, Irrelevant, and Just Plain Not Good Enough; Letting Go of the Type of Person You Think You Are - or Aren't; Letting Go of the Regrets and Mistakes of the Past; Letting Go of Being Right About How Wrong Everybody and Everything Is; Letting Go of the Need to Have Everyone Like You; Letting Go of Thinking the Worst; Letting Go of Waiting for the Right Moment; Letting Go of Needing to Feel Secure; Letting Go of Thinking That You Have to Do Everything Yourself; Making It to Fifty - The Celebration
Part Four - Stepping into the Clearing: Your Vision for the Future; Taking Energy from Your Defining Moments; Being Unforgettable; Find Your Song - and Sing It!; Your Declaration to the World
Appendix: Your Throw-Outs
Resource Guide
Index

The basic plan for the physical clutter is easy... You get three trash bags, label them Trash, Donations, and Sell, and start cleaning.  Blanke advises that you keep a running list of what you've cleaned up and how many things you've trashed.  You don't get to count every individual item on your way to fifty.  For instance, if you have 100 old magazines, throwing them out equals one item, not 100 (sorry!).  Once you start going and you see the numbers add up, the momentum can carry you into all the other physical areas.  Conceptually, I like the idea that Blanke puts out there, and I think it will work well for me as I declutter the physical stuff in my areas.

When I picked up the book from the library, I *wasn't* aware that she also included emotional clutter in her program.  I agree that getting the physical cleaned up can lead to a cleaner emotional life, but she goes beyond that.  Her emotional cleanup requires a whole lot more work than just dumping things in a garbage bag.  Her ideas here are as valid as the physical decluttering, but the results will be more difficult to dig out and make your own.  It's easy to say I won't imagine the worst anymore, but it's something else entirely to actually follow through with that promise the next time you're faced with something you dread.  It's worth the effort to work towards those outcomes, but it won't be fast or painless...

For purposes of getting physical clutter removed from your life, I'd definitely recommend Throw Out Fifty Things as a way to jump in and see quick results.  For emotional clutter, it's not quite so easy or quick.  Cleaning out emotional clutter is where the bigger and deeper changes will occur, but just be prepared to work at it.

Disclosure:
Obtained From: Library
Payment: Borrowed

10/10/2009

Book Review - Riches Among the Ruins: Adventures in the Dark Corners of the Global Economy by Robert P. Smith with Peter Zheutlin

Category Book Review Robert P. Smith Peter Zheutlin Riches Among the Ruins: Adventures in the Dark Corners of the Global Economy
A picture named M2

These days, it seems that all the trading of financial instruments can be done with the click of a mouse using electronic online exchanges.  But that's not the way it always was when it came to some of the more esoteric forms of trading, like trading the debt instruments of developing countries.  Robert P. Smith was one of the first to play in this niche market and helped form much of what we see today when it comes to debt securities.  He shares his stories of life as a global vagabond in the book Riches Among the Ruins: Adventures in the Dark Corners of the Global Economy.  With the correct expectations, Riches is an entertaining read and helps shed some light on how financial markets are formed and manipulated.

Smith started out as a collections lawyer working for his father in Boston.  He absolutely hated the job, and wanted far more than what his father and mother considered a "good life."  This longing led him to sign up for programs that took him overseas to places like Vietnam where he worked for the US government collecting information on the country's economic condition.  As he dug deeper, he started to see how countries were crippled by the inability to convert their debt into dollar-based offerings that would allow them to use what few resources they had to start an ongoing flow of capital.  Smith worked out how he could buy these debt instruments from the holders for far less than their face value (in order to give the holders something for their investment) and then sell them back to the government for less than the government owed.  The spread between those two prices is where his profit would come from.  All this was easier said than done, as the holders were generally not compiled in a single list, and there was little transparency in the process.  But with persistence and legwork, Smith could often match up buyers and sellers and collect a good return for his efforts.

That's not to say that it was risk-free, however.  Along the way, he had partners that double-crossed him, partners that were arrested for fraud, and times when he was personally at risk for millions of dollars if the other party did not honor their agreement.  He flew into regions where he was shot at during times of war, as well as taken rides with people that could have ended with a single well-placed bullet.  But through all this, he was trying to prove to his wife and father that he was *not* a loser and that he could make a living trading debt securities.  And ultimately, he pulled it off and became a pioneer in the debt market.

Smith and his co-writer do a good job in weaving an entertaining story that gives you a flavor for what it must have been like to be on the edge back then.  What the book doesn't do is go into minute detail as to how these debt instruments work and the intricacies therein.  In other words, if you were to buy this book thinking you would learn all you needed to know about debt trading, you'd be disappointed.  You'd learn about it, yes.  But the concepts would be in general terms, and the market doesn't work the same way now as it did then during his more harrowing adventures.  Keeping that in mind to set your expectations, you can decide if this is the type of book you were looking forward to reading.  Working with that information, I found Riches Among the Ruins to be a good read.

Disclosure:
Obtained From: Publicist
Payment: Free

10/10/2009

Book Review - SharePoint Roadmap for Collaboration: Using SharePoint to Enhance Business Collaboration by Michael Sampson

Category Book Review Michael Sampson SharePoint Roadmap for Collaboration: Using SharePoint to Enhance Business Collaboration
A picture named M2

I find it very hard *not* to find a business these days who isn't considering (or already using) Microsoft's SharePoint collaboration software.  It's the newest "shiny toy" when it comes to collaboration, and often people think that it will solve all the problems that vex organizations these days.  But the reality is that it's not about the software, it's about the people.  Unless your people are ready to embrace a culture of collaboration, then nothing in the technical arena will make it better.

Michael Sampson, an expert in the collaboration field (and someone I count as a friend), addresses this in his latest book SharePoint Roadmap for Collaboration: Using SharePoint to Enhance Business Collaboration.  Based on his countless interactions with organizations involved in implementing SharePoint as well as other collaboration offerings, he looks at the strengths and weakness of the software package, the culture that enables one to get the most value out of it, and how best to plan a successful rollout.  This book differs from most other SharePoint books on the market in that Michael doesn't go into any details on how to install or configure the package.  Instead, he stays firmly on the "soft-skill" ground, which is actually where most implementations live and die.  If you think this is an IT project along the lines of "if you build it, they will come", you're in for a rude awakening.

Contents:
Chapter 1: Your Roadmap to SharePoint
Chapter 2: Frameworks for Enhancing Collaboration
Chapter 3: Evaluating SharePoint for Collaboration
Chapter 4: Governance Structure, Process, and Themes
Chapter 5: Engaging the Business
Chapter 6: User Adoptions Strategy
Chapter 7: Collaboration Quick-Start
Chapter 8: Conclusion and Next Actions

The aspect of this book that I like the most is Michael's honesty and candor in evaluating the strengths and weaknesses of SharePoint.  He uses a framework called "The 7 Pillars Model for Team Collaboration" that outlines what collaboration in an organization is and how it should work.  These pillars, such as shared access to team data, location independent access, and team-aware calendaring, can be used to evaluate *any* collaboration solution to determine what should and should not be expected once the software is installed and working.  Since Michael is independent from any vendor influence, he can honestly view software offerings without trying to "sell" something.  In his model, SharePoint passes on three of the pillars and fails the other four.  Some of these shortcomings (and even some of the passes) can be mitigated with 3rd party offerings, but he also points out the risks of deciding to go that route (compatibility with upgrades, future enhancements from Microsoft, vendor stability, etc).  When you get done reading this chapter (and the whole book in general), you have a much more realistic idea of what to expect from SharePoint than you'd get from some business partner or vendor who is trying to make a sale.  Couple this with his observations and guidance on how best to introduce SharePoint to an organization, and you have an extremely valuable book that will more than pay for itself before you ever download a single byte of software.

For any organization looking to hop on the SharePoint bandwagon, I would strongly suggest this be a prerequisite reading requirement.  If you've been getting the vendor hard-sell on the wonders of SharePoint, this will provide a more realistic view of its strengths and weaknesses.  And if you're committed to going down that path, you'll be able to check your expectations and planning against Michael's advice gleaned from seeing many collaboration projects fail due to unrealistic expectations.

Disclosure:
Obtained From: Author
Payment: Free

10/09/2009

Lotus may know I want to register for Lotusphere 2010 early, but...

Category IBM/Lotus LS10
... apparently Lotus *doesn't* know I've ALREADY DONE THAT!!!!

Got this email today:

reply-to        Lotusphereregistration@experient-inc.com
to        duffbert@gmail.com
date        Fri, Oct 9, 2009 at 3:14 AM
subject        Lotusphere 2010 - 17 Years as a Leading Industry Conference - Lotus Knows You Want to Register Early and Save!
mailed-by        experient-inc.com


Dear Thomas Duff,

Lotusphere is the premier event for the Lotus and WebSphere Portal software community worldwide: developers, administrators, IT and business professionals looking to drive better business results through collaborative software and solutions. We'll share the best content from our community with sessions like JumpStarts and QuickStarts, from Birds-of-a-Feather discussions to the ever-popular Best Practices sessions, it's all about delivering the latest word on Lotus and WebSphere Portal software products, services and strategy. You'll hear it right from the source -- our engineers, developers, and designers, and from cutting-edge IBM Business Partners, fellow customers and industry gurus.

We are writing to you as a member of the Lotusphere community to invite you to attend the 17th annual conference. Take advantage of this year's lowest possible registration fee. The Lotusphere 2010 registration site is open and the fee is $1895.00 USD per person - - the lowest it will be this year. To assist you in your planning, we want you to know that on November 21, 2009, the registration fee will go up to $2295.00 USD per person and then on January 14th, it will go up to $2495.00 per person. So, act now - you have plenty of time to get your funding approved and get registered by November 20th.

The Large Group Discount will be back again for your convenience: if you have twenty (20) or more people attending from your company, you can take advantage of special pricing. Full details on this offer can be found at www.ibm.com/lotus/lotusphere. Please be sure to use the special Large Group Registration URL found on this same web site.

We are planning another informative and content packed conference. At this very early stage you will find only basic information on the Lotus web site; watch for continual updates. We can share a few details with you here:

* The conference will take place from January 17 - 21, 2010 at the Walt Disney World Swan and Dolphin Resorts, and Disney's Yacht and Beach Club Resort and will follow the same format as past years with sessions and Business Development Day beginning on Sunday, an Opening General Session on Monday morning, sessions, labs, exhibits and BoFs running all week - concluding on Thursday afternoon with an entertaining Closing General Session.

* Once again, there will be lots to look forward to! We are designing the conference content with our community in mind. There will be lots of practical core Lotus Notes and Domino content, plenty on real-time collaboration, and the ever popular trend-centric panels where we will dive deep with expert testimony on what's hot in today's business and technology environments. We invite you to submit an abstract and help shape the 2010 conference - you can find the form at www.ibm.com/lotus/lotusphere.
   
* The Lotusphere 2010 Housing Bureau, Experient Housing, also has their web site open for you to make your hotel reservations. Be sure to look for the link at the end of the conference registration process to make your hotel arrangements.

Everything you need to register, book a hotel or submit an abstract can be found on the Lotusphere web site. Pass this link along to colleagues - - we want all of our friends, new and old, to know what Lotus knows - about the power of collaboration, the power of community and the power of Lotusphere!

Register now! We hope you will take advantage of this offer and we are looking forward to seeing you in Orlando in January.

The Lotusphere 2010 Team

OK...  I understand it's easiest to just mass-mail the email addresses you have from prior Lotusphere events, IBM events, etc.  But if  you're going to be using the "Lotus Knows" in the subject line, it's best *not* to send the email out to people who have already registered.  I'm reasonably sure Experient already has my registration info... a simple filter to strip off registrations they already have would be nice.  Otherwise, the whole "Lotus Knows" subject line becomes a bit of a joke.

Oh, and the "large group discount"... wasn't that a buy-5-get-1-free or something like that in the past?  I'm curious to see how many companies will be sending 20 people.  Maybe a PriceWaterhouseCooper-type firm who is global, but even then in this economy, I have my doubts.  Perhaps IBM will get a few additional attendees, though.  :)

10/05/2009

FTC Publishes Final Guides Governing Endorsements, Testimonials

Category Blogging Book Reviews Product Reviews
So the FTC came out today and issued some regulations on how product endorsements, reviews, and such need to be identified when putting them online:

The Federal Trade Commission today announced that it has approved final revisions to the guidance it gives to advertisers on how to keep their endorsement and testimonial ads in line with the FTC Act.

Where it comes into play for what I do is here:

The revised Guides also add new examples to illustrate the long standing principle that “material connections” (sometimes payments or free products) between advertisers and endorsers – connections that consumers would not expect – must be disclosed. These examples address what constitutes an endorsement when the message is conveyed by bloggers or other “word-of-mouth” marketers. The revised Guides specify that while decisions will be reached on a case-by-case basis, the post of a blogger who receives cash or in-kind payment to review a product is considered an endorsement. Thus, bloggers who make an endorsement must disclose the material connections they share with the seller of the product or service. Likewise, if a company refers in an advertisement to the findings of a research organization that conducted research sponsored by the company, the advertisement must disclose the connection between the advertiser and the research organization. And a paid endorsement – like any other advertisement – is deceptive if it makes false or misleading claims.

So in other words (if I'm reading this correctly), when I review a book I need to disclose when it was shipped to me from a publisher or an author.  And if I do a product review, I need to disclose where the product came from, as well as whether I'm required to return the item after reviewing.

My knee-jerk reaction at first was "You've got to be kidding me! I'm just a blogger!"  But that logic didn't stick around for long.  People search the 'net looking for information and reviews on products before they buy.  My blog is indexed by these search engines.  Therefore, people use my reviews to make purchasing decisions.  If I were doing the searching (which I do just like everyone else), I'd like to know if the person pushing the product is receiving significant reimbursement for doing so, or if there's a conflict somewhere that could come into play.  Heck, just knowing if they got the item gratis is worth knowing, so you can make your own decisions on how to weigh their opinions.

On this blog, I've got a disclosure statement listed if you look hard enough.  The main part of that which pertains to this discussion is here:

I currently am responsible for the monthly LotusUserGroup.org Developer Tips newsletter.  I get paid for that.  To date, I've never been told I can't write about something or give it my own personal view or slant.  I also write occasional articles for other publications in the IBM/Lotus technical area.  In most cases, I get paid for that too.  Webcasts, paid.  Lotusphere speaking, not paid (except for free conference registration).  I write because I love the process, not because I have to pay the bills.  Therefore, you get things I think are of interest to the audience, not things I'm told have to be covered or vendors who have to be pushed.  

I read.  A lot.  I live a block away from a public library.  That's where nearly all my "recreational" reading material comes from.  The books I review on this site are posted here, Twitter, and Amazon.  If you read a review on a tech book, you can nearly always assume I've received this book for free from the publisher, such as O'Reilly, Wiley, Apress, Addison-Wesley, and others.  I'm on their reviewer lists and receive review copies of books that are of interest to me or my blogging audience.  Other than the free book, I don't get paid for these reviews.  I am under no pressure from the publisher to generate positive spin for a book just because they sent it to me.  In fact, they encourage me to be honest.  So, if I post a positive review, it's because I really did like the book.

I suppose I could count that as my statement of interest for my reviews, but that really doesn't make it easy when I post the review elsewhere outside of my blog, like on Amazon.  How best to handle that situation in a way that doesn't add a whole mess of boilerplate text onto the end of every post?  And even better, can I make it serve a dual purpose here also?

I was thinking about something like this at the end of each review:

Obtained From: (publisher, library, author, purchased)
Payment: (none, paid review, free book/product)
Product Ownership: (return when reviewed, keep)

That seems to be fairly concise, lets people know where I got the book/product from, and what financial investment the sender has in me reviewing the item.  

I'm open to feedback, however...  Does anyone else have any ideas of a standard review trailer that tells what a reader would like to know without adding paragraphs of useless text?

10/04/2009

Book Review - Hell Island by Matthew Reilly

Category Book Review Matthew Reilly Hell Island
A picture named M2

OK... I know this is labeled a "Quick Read" (all of 115 pages and large font setting) for an Australian government program.  As such, you wouldn't find something like this on the shelves of Borders.  As such, Matthew Reilly's Hell Island has to be kept in context.  There's only so much you can do in 115 pages when you're writing an action thriller.  And since Reilly writes seat-of-the-pants non-stop movement into his novels to begin with, you can pretty much figure that Hell Island jumps right to the "final showdown".  And less than an hour after starting it, you're done.  But I really can't get over the italicized action words and sound effects liberally added to nearly every paragraph.  It makes the book read like a Batman and Robin episode with the sound effect words spiraling up on the screen.

The storyline is basic... Captain Shane Schofield (aka "Scarecrow") leads a team of Marines on a secret mission to a remote island in the Pacific.  There are also teams of Navy SEALs, Army 82nd Airborne Division, and Delta squads.  The goal is to drop onto the island and a deserted aircraft carrier, and see why the ship and a prior rescue crew went missing.  Shortly after landing, they quickly find out why... a genetically modified squad of gorilla soldiers have taken over the area, and they are programmed to stop at nothing in order to kill who they perceive as enemies.  Outnumbered and outgunned, Scarecrow's group has to outthink the creatures in order to survive to make it back to safety... wherever that might be on the island.

This whole book would comprise about 15 minutes of a movie scene, so I don't expect much background, character development, or anything else for that matter.  For a single day commute on the bus, it's fine.  But the whole writing style bugged me the entire time.  Phrases like "a black man-sized *creature* came swooping" and "Sanchez *had* to look for himself" (where the *words* are italicized) exist all over the place.  I'm sure it's supposed to give a breathless, breakneck pace and feel to the story.  Instead, I felt it turned the book into an adolescent young adult book, with the emphasis on "young".  I think the book would have read much better just by eliminating that gimmick and letting the story flow and pace on its own...

10/04/2009

Book Review - Computer Forensics For Dummies by Linda Volonino and Reynaldo Anzaldua

Category Book Review Linda Volonino Reynaldo Anzaldua Computer Forensics For Dummies
A picture named M2

Being that I work in the tech industry, I know that there's far more on your computer (and other electronic devices) than you think there is.  But I haven't ever given any in-depth thought to how one would legally go about discovering and documenting their finds for a court of law.  Computer Forensics For Dummies by Linda Volonino and Reynaldo Anzaldua do a perfect job (in my opinion) in introducing the reader to the world of computer forensics, both from the technical side as well as the courtroom perspective.  While I wouldn't expect it to be your primary guide for the field, Computer Forensics For Dummies goes a whole lot further than I expected, and I learned a lot.

Contents:
Introduction
Part 1 - Digging Out and Documenting Electronic Evidence: Knowing What Your Digital Devices Create, Capture, and Pack Away - Until Revelation Day; Suiting Up for a Lawsuit or Criminal Investigation; Getting Authorized to Search and Seize; Documenting and Managing the Crime Scene
Part 2 - Preparing to Crack the Case: Minding and Finding the Loopholes; Acquiring and Authenticating E-Evidence; Examining E-Evidence; Extracting Hidden Data
Part 3 - Doing Computer Forensic Investigations: E-Mail and Web Forensics; Data Forensics; Document Forensics; Mobile Forensics; Network Forensics; Investigating X-Files - eXotic Forensics
Part 4 - Succeeding in Court: Holding Up Your End at Pretrial; Winning a Case Before You Go to Court; Standing Your Ground in Court
Part 5 - The Part of Tens: Ten Ways to Get Qualified and Prepped for Success; Ten Tactics of an Excellent Investigator and a Dangerous Expert Witness; Ten Cool Tools for Computer Forensics
Glossary
Index

From the techie side, it's tempting to view computer forensics as all technical, and to figure that if you can find a file, you must have done the job.  Not so much... Since most of the forensic work will be legal in nature (or could well end up that way), there are definite rules and processes you HAVE to follow in order to prove to the court's and jury's satisfaction that the data you found was truly there and not manufactured by you or someone else along the way.  Volonino and Anzaldua cover those requirements very well, from search warrants and subpoenas to chain of custody documentation and documented actions.  Those are the things that far too many techies would ignore on their way towards uncovering data, and in turn it would completely invalidate their efforts.  That's why "do it yourself" forensic work is NOT recommended.

But that's not to ignore the vast array of skills and abilities that are needed to successfully find evidence that doesn't appear to exist any more.  The authors present a nicely balanced discussion on both the reasons why and how data can be hidden (both intentionally and unintentionally) and how certain tools and techniques can be used to get at that data.  In fact, they go into enough detail that you could download a few tools and start digging into your own computer to see practical examples of what you just read about.  You might just end up rather concerned that what you thought you deleted isn't as "deleted" as you thought it was.

I think that Computer Forensics For Dummies does exactly what it sets out to do, and it does it very well.  By the end of the book, I felt much more informed about how the *whole* field of computer forensics works, and I left with enough knowledge to know where I would need to go to learn more.  Now... time to go see what's hiding on my computer that I forgot about...  :)

10/04/2009

Book Review - Between Me and the River - Living Beyond Cancer: A Memoir by Carrie Host

Category Book Review Carrie Host Between Me and the River - Living Beyond Cancer: A Memoir
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I finished Carrie Host's book Between Me and the River - Living Beyond Cancer: A Memoir this morning, unable to put it down.  This is one of the most moving stories I've read in a long time.  Host chronicles her life from November 2003 through December 2007 as she battles a number of carcinoid tumors that take her from a 135 pound healthy woman to a 95 pound person who is barely able to move.  Her gut-wrenching honesty and complete emotional openness swept me along, celebrating her small victories, and crying at her many setbacks and struggles.

Through her story, I started to understand how nearly all of us take far too many things for granted.  Who of us, for instance, would notice the feel of our front door handle, as we're grateful to once again be able to pass through the door into our own house?  We often complain about all the chores and tasks we have to do around the house, like dishes and laundry. But what if we're so weak that we are grateful to be able to simply fold the laundry and to make some level of contribution to the household tasks?  "Trudging up the stairs" becomes a measuring stick to our recovering health...  After reading Host's story, I hope I never again forget those simple things that I often see as a burden.

What makes this book so special is Host's writing.  A clinical blow-by-blow account of every procedure and test might be interesting, but it would only serve as a guidebook for what to expect if you yourself were about to do the same thing.  Host goes deeper than that, and recounts her emotional struggles, her ups and downs as she moves from elation to despair and back again as diagnoses and test results come back.  When it's 2 am in the morning and you're emotionally drained, the clinical explanations don't help.  It's the human emotions of fear, loneliness, and fragility of life that dominate your mind.  Host is an exceptional writer, and she shares her inner struggles in a way that makes them yours, that makes you care and connect.

Obviously, if you or someone you know is going through a war with carcinoid tumors, Between Me and the River is an excellent read.  It offers hope while still dealing in reality.  But even if a cancer diagnosis is not on your plate, I would still highly recommend this book.  It will once again remind you that the human spirit is strong, and with the help of others can overcome great obstacles.

10/03/2009

Book Review - Wicked Prey by John Sandford

Category Book Review John Sandford Wicked Prey
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OK... I think it's about time for me to set John Sandford and the Prey series aside for awhile... as in I'll catch up one day on new installments, but I won't be tying up allotments on my library hold list to get them as soon as possible.  I just finished Sandford's latest, Wicked Prey, and I honestly just didn't care about the story or the characters.  There were a number of plots going on that seemed to be murky or plodding, I was having problems keeping the players straight and how they related to each other, and I was drifting into full-fledged skim mode by the end.  I just wanted it to be done so I could move on to something else.

The Republican Party convention is being held in Minneapolis, so of course there are tons of cops roaming the city for protection.  But the lure of money is too much for one criminal group, and they decide to start some hotel room robberies to abscond with large amounts of money being spread around by the different party players.  A couple of the criminals are hoping to make this their final job so they can "retire", and one of them keeps wanting to pull "one more job" so that he can retire in luxury.  Lucas Davenport is, as one of the top cops, responsible for trying to break the case and stop the crime spree before it goes much further.  In the mean time, Davenport's adopted daughter is working for a TV station doing kid-related stories, and she becomes involved in trying to get a young prostitute to leave her john that beats her.  This will also protect Davenport's career, as her john is a paraplegic that Davenport nearly killed a few years earlier in a fit of rage.  The john wants to hit back and Davenport, and may try to use Davenport's daughter to do so.  There's also a sniper plot going on that lost me somewhere...

Part of my character confusion with Davenport's fellow cops might well have been due to the length of time between episodes.  I had no continuity there, nor did I care about them.  The linkage that I think was supposed to be there between the criminal gang and the sniper didn't materialize too well, and I really didn't get how his role played out in the end.  And while Davenport's daughter (Letty) seems like she could be a great character in her own right, she's VERY grown up for only being 14.  Planning the demise of johns and predators with the level of planning that she does seems to be a bit much for her age.  A little too over-the-top for me...

When I think back to what the Davenport series used to be, I realize that the last few installments have been inconsistent at best.  I'm not at the point of ditching Sandford completely, but I'm not excited about new titles coming out any more.  I think the Prey series is going to end up as one of those that I catch up with every three to four years (if then) when I'm starting to get a bit desperate for recreational reading material...

10/03/2009

So... night #1 with me and the CPAP machine...

Category Everything Else
Yesterday I had my appointment at the medical device company to pick up and get trained on my new best friend at night, my Resmed CPAP machine.  The session was actually enjoyable, as the company (NW Medical) is very impressive in their customer service, and the guy doing the training was pretty fun to joke around with.  When finished after an hour, I had a new computer bag-like piece of luggage hanging on my shoulder, and was out the door.

Last night I set the device up (painfully simple), put the straps around my head, got the nostril plugs placed, and turned it on.  Voila!  Air!  There's a ramping feature that you can set to have the flow start off light and then ramp up over 5 to 30 minutes to the prescription setting (which in my case is 11 cubic whatever meters of airflow).  I read for a bit, and got to the point where I was having trouble keeping my eyes open.  I figured that was the best time to turn off the light and try sleeping (without drugs) with this for the first time.

And by and large, I did!  :)

I woke up when Sue came to bed a couple hours later, and there was some adjustment that was needed at that point.  Condensation from the humidifier had built up, and I was getting a gurgling/popping noise when I breathed.  Took me a couple minutes to figure out that the moisture causing the sound was in the hose curve that was hanging off the bed.  When I pulled the hose up, I heard the water drain back into the tank, and the noise disappeared.  I turned down the humidifier setting at that point, and we'll see if we can get a better setting to prevent that going forward.

The rest of the night wasn't too bad.  I wasn't sleeping totally soundly as the nose was starting to hurt a bit from having this "thing" on it all night.  The verdict from the spousal unit was that I wasn't snoring, but there were more breathing noises when I slept on one side than the other.  I think that was due to hose placement.  Facing the unit (the "quiet side"), there was no pull on the mask.  Turned over (the "noisy side"), the hose was across my body and the weight was probably causing the mask to sit slightly differently on my face.  

I think tonight I may try clipping the hose to where it goes over the top of the head.  That might alleviate some of the facial shifting and allow me to roll over a bit more.  As everyone has told me, it'll take time to get used to the machine, to figure out what works and what doesn't, and so on.  That's OK, as I'm committed to making this work for me.  I'm tired of being tired...

I'll follow up on this in about a week or so and let you know how it works in terms of making me more alert during the day.  Right now I feel OK (11 am in the morning), but I'm not expecting overnight miracles on that front until my body gets used to sleeping with the device in place.

10/03/2009

Book Review - Fugitive by Phillip Margolin

Category Book Review Phillip Margolin Fugitive
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One of the reasons I like reading Phillip Margolin is that his crime novels take place here in Portland, Oregon.  It's nice being able to exactly picture what is happening where.  In Fugitive, there's a bit less Portland and a bit more exotic locales, but it didn't stop me from enjoying the book.  Margolin brings back Amanda Jaffe and gives her a chance to reach the same level of recognition that her father did in an earlier episode...

In Fugitive, the story revolves around one Charlie Marsh, a con man turned hero turned guru turned accused murder.  He was in prison and was able to prevent a warden from being killed during a hostage standoff.  He used this episode to start espousing a New Age philosophy which turned into big bucks (and lots of women) for Marsh.  This was going well until a confrontation with the high-powered spouse of a woman he was bedding.  The spouse was shot, and both her and Marsh were accused of the murder.  She was able to get off with the help of Amanda Jaffe's father, also an attorney.  Marsh fled the country and ended up in Africa in the dictatorship of Batanga.  But due to his inability to leave certain women alone, his life is about to end when the dictator finds out he's been seeing one of his wives.  Marsh arranges to be smuggled out of the country back to the US to stand trial, but only if Jaffe defends him.  In addition, Jaffe has to accept a reporter as part of the "team" so that Marsh's story can become part of a book deal.  And since the person paying the legal bills is the head of a major publishing company, there *will* be a book deal here.  Unfortunately, various parts of Marsh's past follow him to the trial, and Jaffe has her hands full trying to keep both of them alive, as well as trying to mount a legal defense.

Overall, Fugitive is enjoyable.  The local setting *does* play a part in my enjoyment of the book, as certain scenes come to life very well.  I also like Jaffe's character, so that helped too.  There did seem to be a bit of "larger than life"-ness with the escape from Batanga and the elements of who was pulling the strings behind the scenes.  But, if you suspend a bit of belief and just go with it, Fugitive does well.

10/03/2009

Book Review - Smoke Screen by Sandra Brown

Category Book Review Sandra Brown Smoke Screen
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While on our vacation last month, my wife picked up a copy of Sandra Brown's Smoke Screen from the paperback rack.  As it didn't appear to be a romance novel, I snarfed it up after she was done.  Overall, Smoke Screen was a nice beach read while you're sitting around soaking up rays...

The story revolves around what appears to be a conspiracy of silence related to a police station fire that happened a number of years ago.  A small cadre of people were portrayed as heroes in the rescue efforts, but there seems to be an underground effort to keep anyone from digging too deeply into what really happened that day.  A reporter who is gets a call from one of the participants (who was a former lover but is now dying of cancer) meets with him, only to black out and wake up in the morning with the guy in bed with her, dead.  That starts to ruin her career, as officials seem to think she actually killed him.  She reaches out to someone who found himself in nearly the same circumstance after investigating the fire.  In his case, he went to a party, blacked out, and woke up with a party girl in bed with him, dead from a cocaine overdose.  The reporter in question here was instrumental in pushing the story and ending his career, turning him into a hermit who shuns society and only wants to be left alone.  Once they both hook up, he has to figure out what is more important... revenge for what she did to him, or finding the truth about what happened in the fire...

What I enjoyed most about the story were the various turns of who was on which side.  Good guys are bad, bad guys are good, and you're not quite sure who is who until the end.  Granted, we're not talking about any deep plots or keen human insights here...  just a fun dose of mind candy to escape for a bit.  As such, Smoke Screen worked for me...

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Thomas "Duffbert" Duff

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