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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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05/31/2009

Book Review - 101 Quick and Easy Secrets to Create Winning Photographs by Matthew Bamberg

Category Book Review Matthew Bamberg 101 Quick and Easy Secrets to Create Winning Photographs
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Matthew Bamberg has put together a very nice book that can take you to the next level with your digital SLR photography...  101 Quick and Easy Secrets to Create Winning Photographs.  He covers a wide variety of techniques and situations that can move you from ordinary to extraordinary results.

Contents:
Making Your Photographs Look 3D; Painting with Light; Adding Action to Your Frame; Adding or Subtracting with Shadows; Making Art from Architecture; Creating Mood Shots Using Weather; Beautifying with Color; Breathing Life into People; Making Animal Photos Sharp and Fun; Spicing Up Photos with Lens Flare, Noise, and Other Unusual Effects; Composing with Landscape; Shaping Up with Symmetry; Technical Tango; Daytime, Nighttime, Anytime; Back to the Future; Index

The layout of the book is perfect for picking up new ideas.  Each two page spread (left and right) shows a photo, introduces a technique, and tells how he was able to pull it off.  He also covers exactly what camera settings were used in the shot (f-stop, shutter speed, ISO, and lens length).  Granted, knowing all that does *not* guarantee that your picture will come out the same, but at least you have a starting point.  But more important than just the mechanics of taking the picture, he also explains the composition and lighting of the shot.  That makes the most difference.  For instance, his tips on photographing neon signs during the day and capturing the grandeur of an old movie palace really hinge on angle, color, and framing.  An even better composition example is the item titled "Umbrellas Aren't Always For Rain".  He shows how two pictures of the same basic scene can be light years apart in telling a story or capturing a concept.  Many setting sins can be corrected with photo software if you're shooting in RAW format.  But bad composition is pretty much a killer.

You'll probably be able to follow the technical setting details more readily if you are already familiar with the concepts and settings involving aperature and shutter speed.  He doesn't spend much time trying to get you educated on that material if you don't already know that.  But given the target of the book, I wouldn't expect him to.  This is a solid choice to work on improving your skills behind the camera, and you'll have plenty of things to work on.

05/30/2009

Book Review - The Third Secret by Michael Parker

Category Book Review Michael Parker The Third Secret
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I received a pretty good recreational read the other day in the mail...  The Third Secret by Michael Parker.  It had a bit of everything...  intrigue, conspiracy, buried treasure, and a number of people all after a single item, but most all for different reasons.

There are two driving forces in the story.  One is the third secret of Fatima from the Catholic Church.  During World War II, it was thought that perhaps the German soldiers might overrun the Vatican and loot a number of treasures.  A priest, acting on his own, decided to take the unrevealed third secret document, substitute a fake document, and send the real document out of country for safekeeping.  The other force is a shipment of Vatican gold being sent out for the same reason.  It just so happens that the document is also with the gold.  While the Italians are transporting the gold shipment, it's attacked by an Allied patrol in the middle of the desert.  They decide to hide the shipment in an unmarked cave until they can figure out how to divvy up the spoils.  Of course, human greed takes over, a gun fight ensues, and only one(?) person is left alive that knows about the hiding spot.  The rest of the story revolves around his plans to head back, recover the gold for himself, and potentially figure out exactly what that strange piece of paper was that was also with the gold.  The main problem is that he's not the only one who gets wind of the recovery, and there are some very powerful people who are willing to do just about anything to make sure they are the winners in the search.

I've grown a bit tired of the Catholic conspiracy genre, as it's been done over and over.  But in this case, the story line didn't seem to go overboard on the topic.  There were enough competing interests so that the story stayed fresh.  And even when I thought most everything was settled and I knew who was on what side, I found out I didn't.  The Third Secret was an entertaining novel, and one that I'm glad I had the chance to read.

05/30/2009

Book Review - Exposed!: Ouija, Firewalking, and Other Gibberish by Henri Broch

Category Book Review Henri Broch Exposed!: Ouija Firewalking and Other Gibberish
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I received an advance readers copy of Exposed!: Ouija, Firewalking, and Other Gibberish by Henri Broch through the Amazon Vine program.  On the surface, it sounded as if it had promise...  the author promises to destroy these "mystical" happenings with ordinary science, showing that nothing paranormal is at play here.  And to be fair, he does explain how it's quite easy to rig a "demonstration of the powers" so that "magic" happens.  With minor alterations in the setup, Broch can make the powers completely disappear.  All it takes is a skeptical eye and a willingness to change the ground rules for the experiment to rule out external influences.

So why did this book fail to deliver?  How come it never grabbed my interest?

Part of the problem might be the "lost in translation" effect.  Broch is French, and the book is translated from French into English.  It may well be that the translation made the material sound much more labored than it was in the original French.  Whatever the case, the writing doesn't seem to flow very well for readability and interest.  There's also an issue with how the material within the chapters is organized.  Historical examples of people claiming to have power are mixed with references to older non-English publications (often without much of a reason why).  Alterations in the experiments that caused them to fail are mixed in with confusing mathematical and scientific explanations that all seem to be fighting for the reader's attention.  Add in a liberal dose of what appears to be sarcastical and self-promoting rants on how well the researchers debunked the demonstration, and it all gets to be rather tedious.

In some of the chapters, there's really not even a reason presented as to why it might have worked in the first place.  For example, ouija board activity is covered towards the end.  He starts by having the people use a table and an overturned glass.  If that seems to "work", then try something similar, only mixing up the letters around the edge of the board and covering their values.  If true spirits are at work, that shouldn't confuse them.  But funny how whenever the experiment is changed in this fashion, nothing but gibberish appears.  No real reason why, other than it must not have been real in the first place.  Still, the mixture of explanations, ranging from scientific proof to "we made it stop" leaves one wishing for more consistency.

I'll admit being spoiled by shows like Mythbusters that do some of the same types of experiments, but do it in a way that educates and entertains at the same time.  Exposed! seems to be hit and miss on both those criteria, and I could have found other things to do with the couple hours I spent reading this book.

05/28/2009

Book Review - A User's Manual for the Human Experience by Michael W. Dean

Category Book Review Michael W. Dean A User's Manual for the Human Experience
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Most of the personal improvement/personal productivity books I read tend to be tightly edited how-to manuals that answer all the questions, even if nobody ever really asked them in the first place.  All well and good, but you wonder how (or even if) the advice has ever been used in the real world.  And then you have A User's Manual for the Human Experience by Michael W. Dean.  Raw, practical, real-life, and you get it as he puts it out there.  

Contents:
Greetings, Eager Seeker; New Year's Resolutions Don't Work; The Only Two Rules In Life; Practical Emotional Self-Defense; Your Rights End at My Nose; From Netiquette to Restraining Orders; No-Contact Strategy; A Resentment and a Coffee Pot; Twelve Steps? How About Two Steps!; Hardcore Recovery Without Meetings; You Have The Right to be Left Alone; Stop Being A Victim; Work Smarter; Time Management for Calm and Profit; Make a Living Doing What You Love; Organization Building; Letter to a Young Me; Recommended Reading, Viewing, and Surfing

Dean's been through more than most of us would experience in a couple of lifetimes when it comes to self-destructive behavior.  Rock bands, drugs, alcohol, sex, and dead before 30...  that pretty much sums up his existence prior to getting things turned around.  Add in losing a daughter to cancer, and you're not talking about a storybook life.  Once he started to figure out which end was up, he started to live his life by some simple rules that make sense for anyone.  Actually, only two...  Do not initiate or accept force, and keep your word.  Amazing how much can be covered in those two rules.  And force isn't just physical... it can be the "serenity vampires" who are simply out there to draw you into conflict and make your life miserable.  If you block those people in your life (not accepting force), you can end up with a far happier existence, free of the daily drains that others put on you.  

If the Two Rules were the only thing in the book, it'd be worth the read.  But since you're getting everything that Dean wants to share with you, there's quite a bit more. If  you're more into wanting to bypass the emotional stuff and move to "make me more productive" material, jump over to the part starting with Work Smarter.  It's there that you start to get a number of practical tips on changing your habits to accomplish more with far less stress.  Topics such as goal management, not resting on your past, and analyzing the "hiya Joes" will have you rethinking some of the ways you approach your work.  Even internalizing his view "do everything as if you'll be remembered for *only that one thing*" will radically change your day-to-day reality.

As I mentioned at the start, don't expect a slick handbook with a 1-2-3 methodology.  Do however expect to see reality through the eyes of someone who has been there, done that, and has the scars (and the tattoo) to prove it.  You won't come away from reading A User's Manual as the same person you were when you started...

05/17/2009

Book Review - Iron Ambition: My Journey from Seat 2A to Ironman by John D. Callos

Category Book Review John D. Callos Iron Ambition: My Journey from Seat 2A to Ironman
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It's not uncommon for people to have that moment when they look in the mirror and say "no more".  Still fairly common for people to make a commitment to "change".  The rarity starts when someone actually accomplishes what they set out to change, and hardly anyone ever documents their battles for others to learn from.  John Callos falls into that final category with his book Iron Ambition: My Journey from Seat 2A to Ironman.  This book falls squarely into the "inspirational/motivational" genre for those of us who are looking to mend our ways when it comes to health and fitness.  And it works...

I've had the pleasure of talking with John on business-related issues, and I was impressed with his knowledge and wisdom.  That same practical reality comes through in his writing, which is a personal account of his decision to compete and finish an Ironman triathlon.  His many years of business travel and "comfortable living" had put him in a spot where he was physically out of shape and embarrassed to face what he had become.  He decided that he would change his ways and work towards a goal of finishing an Ironman triathlon.  But unlike setting a goal of running a 10K race, triathlon training is a full-time commitment.  Add in running your own business and traveling on a regular basis, and we're talking some serious lifestyle disruption.  But John is nothing if not stubborn, and his drive to reach his goal carried him through some dark hours and serious injuries on his way towards hearing those magic words, "John Callos, you are an Ironman!"

This is not a "follow these steps, and you too can go from fat to fit" book.  There's no product being pushed here, nor is he trying to sell a program.  Think of it as a set of letters written to a close friend, explaining what you're going through trying to reach a goal.  Also keep in mind that you won't probably won't have the same level of resources available to you that John did.  He runs a very successful business, and can afford things that most of us would just drool over in catalogs.  You're probably not going to be able to hire a well-known coach to work with you.  You may not be able to afford an Endless Pool installation so that you can train in your own backyard.  You also may not have a selection of road bikes to choose from for your training, either.  On the other hand, you *will* experience aches and pains you've never felt before.  You'll have numerous reasons not to work out on any particular day.  You'll have workouts from hell and times when you feel you could run forever.  Bottom line, you'll be reading someone who has struggled along the path that you want to travel, and is willing to share what he went through.

This is an enjoyable read, and one that should inspire you to make some changes and follow through with them...  I know it's helping me.

05/17/2009

Book Review - The 86 Biggest Lies on Wall Street by John R. Talbott

Category Book Review John R. Talbott The 86 Biggest Lies on Wall Street
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I love books that take conventional wisdom, the things "everyone knows to be true", and puts them under the microscope for renewed examination.  John R. Talbott does this to Wall Street and investing in his book The 86 Biggest Lies on Wall Street.  You may not agree with all of his conclusions, and a number of them might make you financially uncomfortable.  But in any case, it's worth having your assumptions challenged to see if there might be a better path out there.

Contents:
Lies About What Caused This Mess; Lies About How to End the Crisis; Investment Strategy Lies; Stock Investing Lies; Bond Investing Lies; Lies About Other Investments; Lies in Economics; Lies in Finance; Lies About the Global Economy; Lies About Hedge Funds and the Derivatives Market; Lies About Government and Regulation; The Real Reform Needed on Wall Street; Index

The format here is pretty simple.  You have "Lie #nn: " followed by the statement that tends to be spouted as a truth that everyone accepts.  And then Talbott proceeds to smash it based on his observations and experience from a lifetime of working in Wall Street.  Given his track record in calling the mortgage crisis and banking crisis, he does bear some attention.  For instance, he starts out with a heavy hitter, and that is that the American economy was the strongest and most resilient in the world heading into the current crisis.  When he digs below the stats usually cited to "prove" this, you see why he disagrees.  He sees GDP growing due to population growth, not due to a strengthening economy.  There's also the matter of illegal aliens hiding the true growth of the population.  Borrowing has driven the increased consumption, which means that in addition to "growth" you have debt.  Total debt outstanding in the US has gone from $25 trillion to $60 trillion in the last 10 years, and he doesn't even bring in the unfunded liabilities of Social Security and Medicare.  Family income has also increased due to spouses joining the workforce, as opposed to real income per individual worker increasing.  When you add all this up along with other observations he has, you realize that this economy was far from healthy and robust.  

Talbott also has harsh words for the Troubled Asset Relief Program that Hank Paulson deemed critical to getting the markets unfrozen.  In fact, lie #17 is "everything that Hank Paulson ever said about the Troubled Asset Relief Program".  Can't get much more inclusive than that.  He shows how the initial target of the plan was immediately dropped after the legislation was passed, and money was instead given to banks who were in good standing with Paulson.  Talbott also shows how, if banks had really sold their bad properties to TARP, there would have been even worse financial ramifications, as it would then be possible to value the bad debt and banks would be forced to revalue their balance sheets (for the worst), leading to even more solvency issues due to being over-leveraged.

I felt the part that I struggled with most was on stock investing, as we've been told certain things for so long.  Talbott takes on the low P/E recommendation, companies that should be able to weather any crisis, and how EBITDA is more reliable than net income in assessing a company's earning potential.  He does have alternative recommendations for all of these situations that are worth considering.  You may not agree, and you'll certainly get pushback from the industry "experts", but given how things have gone of late, their expertise may not be all it's been cracked up to be...

86 Lies is recommended reading if for nothing else to get an alternative view of how the economy is really functioning.  You can then choose to agree or ignore, but at least you'll do so with a more complete picture of reality.

05/16/2009

Book Review - Larry's Kidney by Daniel Asa Rose

Category Book Review Daniel Asa Rose Larry's Kidney
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I really *am* trying to cut down on the number of books I request/receive for reading and reviewing, as I'm woefully behind.  But occasionally someone will cut through my request filters with something that just begs to be read.  Daniel Asa Rose pulled this off with his book Larry's Kidney: Being the True Story of How I Found Myself in China with My Black Sheep Cousin and His Mail-Order Bride, Skirting the Law to Get Him a Transplant--and Save His Life.  Yes, that's the full title, and it's as quirky as it sounds.  Also great fun and emotional, too...

This real-life adventure starts when Daniel gets a call from his cousin Larry.  The call is rather extraordinary in itself, as Larry has not been everyone's favorite relative.  But Daniel is one of the few who hasn't completely banished him from his life, and hence the request.  Larry wants Daniel to accompany him to China, where he's hoping to get a kidney transplant to save his life.  Dialysis isn't working so well any more, and Larry is edging ever closer to death.  Daniel, an independent writer, has a family and responsibilities, so just jumping on a plane with Larry isn't all that feasible.  Add in the fact that kidney transplants are illegal for westerners in China, and Larry has NO idea as to how he'll get one over there.  He figures that Daniel can come up with a plan along the way.  Against his better judgement, and since Larry *is* family, Daniel decides to head over with Larry to see if they can find this last shot at saving his life.  Oh, and by the way, they'll also be picking up Larry's Chinese girlfriend he met online and who he thinks he may want to marry while he's over there.  And you thought your life was complicated...

They arrive in China, and Daniel starts following leads and making contacts with anyone who might be able to line up a kidney transplant.  Even though the whole issue is illegal, anything can be had for a price if you know the right people.  At the last minute before they are planning to leave, the right contacts fall into place, and Larry is whisked to a hospital where he will soon be getting a new kidney from sources that are not quite clear.  His Chinese doctor is an expert in the field, and this form of medical tourism is something that he generally is able to get away with.  But Larry and Daniel still have to trust a number of people to come through for them in a situation where they don't have any real form of power or recourse should something go wrong.  Daniel's struggles with Larry, Larry's struggles with Mary (his girlfriend), and the real identity and purpose of those who have made themselves available to Daniel all make for some interesting and entertaining reading...

There's a lot of material here for readers...  Larry is quite the character, with a shady past and a rather unique take on life.  The interactions between the two cousins is worth the reading alone.  But when you dive a bit deeper, there are heavier questions to consider...  the ethics of transplant sources, skirting the law to save a life, cross-cultural love, and many others.  It's sad that we are even at a place where the availability of transplant organs is so constrained that the vast majority of people needing one will die before they get to the top of the list.  There's also the whole issue of American medical authorities fighting tooth and nail against medical work done in other countries for far less money, adding horror stories of everything that could go wrong "over there", as if our medical system is devoid of errors.

Daniel's Kidney is well worth the read, both for entertainment and for some food for thought.  

05/16/2009

Book Review - Survival: How a Culture of Preparedness Can Save You and Your Family from Disasters by Lt. Gen. Russel L. Honore and Ron Martz

Category Book Review Russel L. Honore Ron Martz
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Through the Amazon Vine program, I received a copy of the book Survival: How a Culture of Preparedness Can Save You and Your Family from Disasters by Lt. Gen. Russel L. Honore and Ron Martz for reviewing.  I'll admit that the title had me expecting something far different than what was delivered.  As such, I found it only marginally applicable to what the general premise seemed to indicate.  Someone going into the book with a proper understanding of what it was actually about might fare better than I did.

Honore was the main person placed in charge of the government response to Hurricane Katrina.  Hailing from that area himself, he was immediately seen as "one of us" by the people who were affected by the aftermath of the storm and the cleanup efforts afterwards.  In Survival, he presents a first person account of how he came up through the military, the preparation that placed him in the position to lead the storm response, and a blow-by-blow description of what happened behind closed doors as turf wars and personalities warred to get attention and exposure from the crisis.  Rather sad that so many in charge had so many ulterior motives beyond the service to those they were sworn to serve and protect.  At the end of each chapter, there is a list of "lessons learned" in terms of what came out of the Katrina disaster, as well as things that need to change in order for America to better prepare and handle these events in the future.

Now, had this been titled something like Katrina, or Surviving Katrina, I would have been in a much different mindset when I placed the order.  What I expected was a book that talked about how you can prepare your family and yourself for local disasters, and how you can be ready for a disruption in your normal routine.  And to be fair, one of the appendixes does cover preparedness kits you should have on hand.  But the rest of the book read like an autobiography of Honore, a defense of his decisions, and a storytelling of what it was like to be on the ground after the storm passed.  All fine if that's what you were expecting, but far from satisfactory if you were looking to improve your chances of getting through a local crisis.  

The best I can do here is give this a three star review, knowing that others might like it better based on their interest in Katrina.  Personally, I probably would have been reading something else had I known then what I know now.

05/16/2009

Book Review - Inside the Revolution: How the Followers of Jihad, Jefferson and Jesus Are Battling to Dominate by Joel C. Rosenberg

Category Book Review Joel C. Rosenberg Inside the Revolution: How the Followers of Jihad Jefferson and Jesus Are Battling to Dominate
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I got the chance to read Inside the Revolution: How the Followers of Jihad, Jefferson & Jesus Are Battling to Dominate by Joel C. Rosenberg recently, which was a real treat.  Rosenberg spends most of his time analyzing Middle East affairs from the perspective of end-times Christian theology.  He's also written a number of political novels centered around Islamic themes, many of which have been eerily played out for real on the world stage, often only months after the book has been released.  Inside the Revolution is a non-fiction analysis of what is happening in the Islamic Revolution, what mindsets are driving the power struggle, and what it means for the US and other world powers.  While you may not agree with all the conclusions, Inside the Revolution will add to your overall education of the situation.

The three main breakdowns here are as follows:
The Radicals - "Islam is the answer, and Jihad is the way"
The Reformers - "Islam is the answer, but Jihad is not the way"
The Revivalists - "Islam is not the answer, and Jihad is not the way; Jesus is the way"

Our media tends to focus on the first, as it's the most sensationalistic.  Rosenberg lays a solid groundwork for the theology behind jihad, and how it is justified.  He also makes it easy to understand why this radical form of Islam is so appealing to those of a young age, who want to strike back at the injustices they see leveled at their countries and belief systems.  He also goes deeper than typical media coverage, explaining how the "Twelfth Imam" theology of Iran's president makes that country an especially destabilizing force to those around them.  By the time I finished reading the Radicals chapter, I had a pretty good understanding as to how and why this form of Islam presents such dangers to the world.  

The Reformers section presents a less-often seen view of Islam, the picture of Islam as a peaceful religion, and one that wants to work with and coexist peacefully with those around them.  Again, Rosenberg does a thorough job in explaining both the theological basis for this form, as well as the thoughts and views of those who follow this path and are influential within the leadership of Islamic countries.  I had a hard time remembering that these individuals are truly putting their lives on the line each day, walking and breathing targets to those who would view them as mistaken and dangerous to the Islamic cause.

Finally, Rosenberg presents the Revivalists, those who are followers of Jesus, and who worship Christ at great cost and danger on a daily basis.  These followers are viewed as true heretics by the Radicals, and have little to no protection under Islamic law concerning their lives or freedoms.  This is also the group you never see portrayed in mainstream media.  It's only in books like this that you realize that the Christian church does exist in the Muslim world, and despite tremendous persecution, continues to grow and change lives.

My biggest complaint about the book is that the American responses as painted by Rosenberg still seem to be largely divided on Republican and Democratic party lines.  The standard conservative views tend to prevail, with Republicans being the strongest force to fight Radicals, and Democrats being far too willing to talk and concede until it's too late.  Personally, I feel both sides have made numerous mistakes, and I am unable to view all of the Republican stances and actions as pure and well-meaning.  But even with that, Inside the Revolution still succeeds as one of the few books available today that paints a comprehensive view of the faces of Islam, and it's well worth reading to enhance your understanding of what's at stake in the coming years.

05/16/2009

Life can change in an instant...

Category Everything Else
Yesterday I got a call from my wife as I was waiting to catch the bus home.  She called to say that she wasn't going to the movies after work, as a coworker and close friend had found out that afternoon that her daughter had been killed in a traffic accident.  http://www.katu.com/news/local/45166892.html  In less than one day you go from having a daughter who is a senior in high school with bright plans for the future, to planning her funeral.  

It's a reminder that every moment is tenuous, and nothing is guaranteed.

Side note...  looking at the comments, I never cease to be amazed at how utterly crass and uncaring people can be under the cover of anonymity.  I hope I am constantly reminded that behind every posting and story there is a real human being with feelings not unlike my own.  Understanding and caring is such a rare commodity these days...

05/15/2009

So are you EVER going to be healthy, Duffbert?

Category Everything Else
Normally in the past (pre-Twitter), I'd have blogged a number of times about being sick, hurting myself, etc.  It's built-in blog material!  But when you can throw out updates of 140 characters at a time, somehow the longer blog post doesn't happen.  A few people have asked if everything's OK, and the answer is yes.  Just an accumulation of things all at once, none of them serious...

About a week before swine flu was all the fashionable rage, I got one of those flu episodes with achy muscles, no energy, cough, congestion, the typical stuff.  After about three or four days, I was left with the nagging cough that wouldn't go away.  Fine, been there, done that...  And in fact, many coworkers seemed to have the same crud a couple months earlier...  sick for a few days, and a cough that hung on for weeks.  Time for me to join the club...  All of last week, I was still "Mr. Hack" as I couldn't seem to get over the cough.  And I'm typically male, in that going to the doctor is not a considered option, as I figure I'll be told "you got that thing going around...  nothing much to do but ride it out."

After a week of coughing and less-than-stellar sleep (like THAT'S anything new), I decided to do a Saturday trip to the doctor "just to be safe".  The sleep issue was getting critical, and I was starting to wonder if we had progressed to something like bronchitis.  The doctor concurred that I didn't sound well (yay! one for my team!), but also said there was a chance of it being the bug that left you coughing for weeks, much as my coworkers had.  He prescribed a five day azithromycin regimen, and said I'd either be a new man in 36 hours or I'd be working on the cough over time.

36 hours later, not a new man...  welcome to the next month of hacking and coughing...  :)

I could have handled that, except for Monday morning when I was going through my early morning emphysema imitation.  During one particularly hard coughing fit, I felt a pop in my upper ribs.  OH JUST GREAT!  Now not only was I still coughing, but it REALLY hurt to cough.  I worked through the morning at work, and went home early to prep for an evening change control (that didn't end up happening, fortunately).  After explaining my situation to the wife and kids, I was forcefully told in no uncertain terms (by ALL of them) that I *would* be going to the doctor for xrays, I *might* have dislocated ribs, and I *could* end up with a punctured lung.  My arguments were of no avail, and I ended up at the clinic again (two times in three days - a record for me).  They took xrays, explained that Sue, Ian, and Cam *were* right to be concerned, and promptly found...  nothing.  Intercostal strain, will hurt like h*ll, try not to cough, take it easy...  sigh...

Tuesday...  Mucinex and prescription cough meds are my friend.  Still hurts, still trying not to cough, as it hurts too much, and nothing is accomplished anyway.  Coughing becomes a conscious choice of pain vs. congestion, not to be decided lightly.  Tuesday night I'm watching NCIS...  during a commercial break I stand up from the chair and try a few deep coughs to clear out my chest.  Next thing I know, my wife is standing in front of me, yelling my name, asking if I can hear her... I told her I was there, to which she replied "you weren't a few seconds ago!".  Seems I collapsed back, twitched a bit, and did the blackout thing for a few seconds.  Called the on-call doc just to be safe, and he concurred.  Of course, now I'm under the intense scrutiny of everyone in the house to make sure I'm not about to die.  :)  And yes, it was a bit scary.

Thursday, back at the doctor...  It's getting to feel like home.  This appointment was actually planned for a couple of weeks.  Blood draw for a check-in on a new cholesterol med I'm taking, so I was fasting all day.  Talked to him about a scaly spot on the back of my neck that showed up about two months ago.  He tested for ringworm, but it was negative.  Steroid creme for that little spot.  Brought up the idea of a sleep study, as I've been told by those who would know that I have rather dramatic apnea at night.  Most of this is probably due to my current fitness (or lack thereof), and would improve if I get that under control.  The doctor agreed, but felt a baseline might also be a good idea, as my sleep patterns really do suck.  So I have a referral there I have to schedule.  And finally, my depression meds...  Shared here before, I've been on Prozac for a long time to battle dysthymia.  It has literally changed (and probably saved) my life.  But you build up tolerance over time, and I think I'm definitely getting to the point of diminishing returns.  I could present a laundry list of reasons *why* things have been stressful of late, but bottom line is that the meds are not having the same effect.  So, I'm now starting to taper off the Prozac over the next 20 days, will have 48 hours totally off, and will then start on the generic version of Celexa.  So, if you see me write stuff more bizarre than normal, or if you are physically close to me and see strange stuff, let me know...  I'm going into the med change with much more information than I had when I first started SSRIs in 2003, but it's always good to have others aware and watching out for you...

OK, so much for all the body breakdown stuff...  I actually *am* doing something to get healthy, though...

At work, they sponsor a program called Kinetix (you can find out more at http://www.kinetixliving.com/).  It's a solid program of eating correctly *and* exercising correctly to get "in the best shape of your life".  As posted a couple weeks back, I realize I just turned 48 and am in the worst shape of my life.  I was chosen for one of the four week supervised programs starting on May 11th, so my "line in the sand" has been drawn and steps are underway.  I've had to back off the cardio piece this week because of the ribs, but the weight workouts have moved forward.  I've been going lighter than I know I can, in order to try and keep from becoming crippled with post-workout muscle pain.  Generally speaking, that's worked except for legs.  My calves are on fire from Wednesday's routine, and I can barely get my heels to touch the floor without pain. :)

So where am I starting from?  Might as well throw that out here too, so that I have no escape from group accountability.  I weighed in at 246.7 pounds, obviously not good packed on a 5'4" frame.  117.3 of that is body fat, putting my percentage of body fat at 47.5.  Morbidly obese, any way you roll it.  Can't fool myself into thinking any different about that.  No wonder I struggle with things like stairs and walks and such.  The good news is that the journaling and food program of Kinetix is clicking with me, and the attention to working out is a key component I ignored with Weight Watchers and Jenny Craig, as I was more interested in that weekly weight number, not what it was composed of.  In Kinetix, I'll now be able to find out what exactly that .5 pound of weight loss was.  That'd be an emotional crusher before, but now it might well be that 2.5 pounds of lean body mass was gained and 3 pounds of fat was lost.  Yes, I know all of this already, but I'm now emotionally ready to accept it as truth.  I have personal short and longer term goals, and I'm Ok with the the process being part of the journey, not just the quest to arrive at the destination.  

So, for those who have been concerned that I'm falling apart or that I'm about to take some extended medical leave for something serious, thanks for your concern.  Everything is OK, and I'm just making some deposits to correct a severely overdrawn physical health account.  Even though I'm not solely in the Lotus world any more, I'm still hoping that I can figure out a way to make it to Lotusphere 2010 on my own again, where some of the work of the upcoming months should be obvious.  And if *that's* not putting it out there on the line, I don't know what is...  My goal would be to make it from check-in to my room, through the Dolphin rotunda, with *nobody* yelling out "hey Duffbert!"... not because you're not there (I spotted the group), but because Duffbert doesn't quite look like Duffbert any more...

05/12/2009

Book Review - Ghostly Ruins: America's Forgotten Architecture by Harry Skrdla

Category Book Review Harry Skrdla Ghostly Ruins: America's Forgotten Architecture
A picture named M2

I find these types of book irresistible...  Ghostly Ruins: America's Forgotten Architecture by Harry Skrdla.  It's the comparison between then and now, then being when the building was full of life and utility, now being filled with ghosts and decay.  And if you do the pictures in black and white, I have no defense...  

Skrdla splits up American buildings and locations into eight different categories (transportation, industry, commerce, public works, home, amusement, reincarnation, and epitaphs.  For each location within the categories, he tells a brief story behind the pictures, how the building came to be, and how it's turned into the abandoned ruin of it's current state.  In a number of cases, he's able to get the same before/after angle for the photo, and it's like looking into the past, watching the ghosts of generations wandering around.  In other photos, you simply see the amount of decay that has occurred over the years.  Places like The Danvers State Hospital just flat out look creepy at *any* time you view it. :)

Some might find Skrdla's stories and descriptions overly dramatic and "mystical", when all you're really doing is looking at an old building.  But as he notes in the introduction, it's not the building that fascinates, but the story behind it.  It may not be the best pre/post photo book you've ever read, but it's well worth reading if this area is an interest of yours.

05/10/2009

Book Review - Don't Call Me a Crook!: A Scotsman's Tale of World Travel, Whisky and Crime by Bob Moore

Category Book Review Bob Moore Don't Call Me a Crook!: A Scotsman's Tale of World Travel Whisky and Crime
A picture named M2

These days, just about anyone can document their travels and adventures via many different methods... print-on-demand, blogs, YouTube, etc.  But 80 years ago, writing one's memoirs involved actually putting pen to paper, and then hoping that someone could find and buy your book.  Don't Call Me a Crook!: A Scotsman's Tale of World Travel, Whisky and Crime by Bob Moore is one such work that apparently had very few readers when it was released in 1935.  There's little record as to who Bob Moore was, and how his story came to be told.  But their loss is our gain in this reissue, as Moore is quite the character.  His ethics and choices are definitely driven by the particular situation he finds himself in, and his situations are quite unusual most of the time...

His main contention that he is not a crook is based on his definition of a man who steals things from others.  He merely swipes what he needs or when an opportunity exists that he can opportunistically exploit.  For instance, he was invited to a Shriner's gathering where ceremonies were taking place.  The ornate swords were locked up afterwards so that the eating and drinking could begin.  Moore really wanted a better look at the swords, so he broke the lock on the box that stored them.  Seeing such an exquisite work made him think it would be a shame not to have one as a souvenir, and besides, it looked as if that was a really large ruby in the handle.  As he was on a ship back over to England, he showed one of the stewards his great find.  But it turns out the steward was also a Shriner, knew about the missing sword, and pleaded with Moore to dump it overboard before the 400 other Shriners on board found out about it.  He faked throwing it out the porthole to calm down the steward, and then turned around and sold the sword to another passenger.  He felt that it was much more useful to get $100 from the sword than to dump it at a total loss, and besides, he wasn't responsible for what the Shriners might do to the new owner, was he?  :)  

His travels took him around the world, usually as part of an attempt to evade someone who wasn't thrilled with a prior transaction with Moore.  And even though he would often show up in a new location with little more than the clothes on his back, he could usually find a new friend to feed and water him for awhile until the latest "swiping" took place.  But it wasn't stealing, as he wasn't a crook...  :)  And once he had a fair amount of money in his possession, it was time to move on again, onto the next great adventure waiting to be experienced..

The editors at Dissident Books did an excellent job in bringing this little-known classic back to life.  They cleaned up the sequencing of Moore's travels, so that everything flowed in a chronological order.  In addition, they footnoted some of the more antiquated terms and phrases that have lost meaning over the years, or that don't translate well from Moore's Scottish background.  The result is an enjoyable read of a very much over-the-top individual who lived and played as hard as he could.

05/10/2009

Book Review - The Gentleman Host by Dwight Norris

Category Book Review Dwight Norris The Gentleman Host
A picture named M2

I ran across a gem of a first novel recently that kept me up past the proverbial bed time...  The Gentleman Host: A Cruise Ship Nightmare by Dwight Norris.  Norris has combined an interesting plot with realistic characters to create a story that will have me looking over my shoulder the next time I take a cruise.

Dusty Flanagan is a retired Marine and cop who is quite happy watching life go by with his wife and his dog.  Sam Murphy, his former partner, gives him a call asking for a favor.  Sam is working security for a cruise line, and he's quietly investigating a number of cases where single female passengers mysteriously disappeared while cruising.  The assumption is that they fell overboard, but there are no bodies, no suspects, and no reasons to believe that criminal intent is involved.  Sam wants Dusty to just look over the information and offer some opinions.  Dusty really doesn't want to get back into the business, but their friendship wins out and he meets with Sam.  While there's no obvious connection, Dusty's gut tells him that the possibility exists that a serial killer could be behind the deaths.  Of course, cruise lines don't want to give up any info that could point blame in their direction.  Dusty gambles during a face-to-face meeting with one of the cruise executives, and he's able to get access to passenger and crew manifests.  Cross-matching names appear to lead to a dead end, but Dusty isn't one to give up so easy...

I really enjoyed how Norris structured the story.  While you have Dusty and Sam trying to figure out if an actual crime was committed, Norris is following the actions of the killer on board the cruise ship, acting under the cover of a "gentleman host", an older unattached male hired by the cruise lines to be available to a number of older women cruisers who are also traveling on their own.  His job is to be friendly, entertain the women at meals, and to guide tours at ports of call.  As he's learning about his charges, he's using some personal warped criteria as to who should be the next to take a midnight swim.  Norris keeps escalating the tension as Sam and Dusty get closer to uncovering the identity of the killer, as well as trying to stop him before another woman meets an untimely demise.  He also brings the Dusty character to life in such a way that I could see this being the start of an ongoing series.

I'll be interested to see if Norris has another novel waiting to be written.  I wouldn't hesitate to put it at the top of my pile of to-be-read books.

05/10/2009

Book Review - The Rules of Attraction: Fourteen Practical Rules to Help Get the Right Clients, Talent and Resources to Come to You! by Mark Deo

Category Book Review Mark Deo The Rules of Attraction: Fourteen Practical Rules to Help Get the Right Clients Talent and Resources to Come to You!
A picture named M2

Most marketing involves the seller as the hunter, and the potential customer as the hunted.  And all too often, that analogy continues down to the point where the hunted customer is doing everything possible to protect themselves and to escape from the selling hunter.  Is it any wonder then that the buyer/seller relationship is so distasteful to many?  Mark Deo flips the mindset around in his book The Rules of Attraction: Fourteen Practical Rules to Help Get the Right Clients, Talent and Resources to Come to You!  If done correctly, you as the marketer can actually have the customers seeking you out, already "sold" on who you are and what you have to offer before you even begin.  I was impressed at how these seemingly counter-intuitive rules can actually produce more results than the tried and true (and tired) ideas.

Contents:
Introduction - The Principle of Attraction
Rule #1 - Become a Bigger Fish in a Smaller Pond
Rule #2 - Make the Problem More Important Than the Solution
Rule #3 - Create an Exclusive Community of Super-users
Rule #4 - Become the Only Solution
Rule #5 - Reject Strategically
Rule #6 - Give Information Away
Rule #7 - Reverse Risk
Rule #8 - Let Design and Color Speak
Rule #9 - Win Heartshare
Rule #10 - Collaborate Rather Than Compete
Rule #11 - Who We Are is More Important than What We Do
Rule #12 - Create Standards and Systems that Nurture Growth
Rule #13 - Learn the Discipline of Testing
Rule #14 - Destroy Your Business
Impacting Others - The Rules of Attraction at Work
About the Author; Business Attraction Resources, Free Bonus Material

Deo frames the principle of Attraction in terms of the lion and the gazelle.  The gazelle (customer) is alert, knowing there are lions (sellers) nearby.  When the lion starts the chase, the gazelle has only one thing on its mind...  escape.  So long as the lion is hungry, the gazelle can't slow down or else it will become lunch.  But once the lion is able to capture and feed on something, it is no longer hungry.  It poses no menace to the gazelle, and the gazelle can graze nearby without fear.  Imagine if your company appears well-fed, and your customers don't see themselves as "the next meal".  That lack of fear means that curiosity becomes attraction, and the customer is interested in finding out more about what you have to offer.  In short order, you have their trust and you're considered a valuable partner instead of just another lion looking for the kill.

Deo's rules help you put yourself in that position of trust and partnership.  For instance, rule #1 talks about narrowing your target market to a point where you are considered the industry expert.  He cites the example of a financial planner who specializes in the education field.  Given that teachers have some unique tax situations, they need to have an expert who is up-to-speed on those rules and implications.  So by focusing on that specific field, the planner becomes the very big fish in the smaller education pond, and he is the overwhelming first choice of those in that field.  If he tried to be all things to all people, he'd drown in the competition and would have nothing to make him essential to his clients.  Another valuable rule is #5, which is learning to turn away from opportunities or clients that will dilute your main focus.  His example is the Curves fitness franchise.  They don't try to be a large, full-service gym catering to everyone from out-of-shape couch potatoes to competitive bodybuilders.  Instead, they focus on the "soccer mom", the woman who wants to be in better shape, who doesn't feel comfortable around hundreds of people when they exercise, and who don't have as much free time as they'd like.  The locations are small, with a limited set of equipment.  The Curves plan is designed for a quick and focused workout, allowing the customer to get in, get their workout in, and get out.  The focus and catering to that specific audience works, as the franchise is booming.  But to get there, they had to say "no" to a lot of amenities that others considered essential to running a gym.  

The Rules of Attraction is a solid guide to the business person looking to level the playing field against the mega-corporations.  By changing your thinking and mindset, you really can spend less and attract more business, offering solutions to your customers that they can't get anywhere else.  And even better, they won't feel like they're being set up as the next meal...

05/05/2009

So let me propose this... how about a Marketing Partner Program?

Category IBM/Lotus
So today we got the emails about how we can help spread the message of collaboration and Lotus through "viral" videos.  We also got the new Smart Planet message.  

And as one might have expected, the Yellowverse was suitably underwhelmed.

I had plans to come home this evening, review opinions, and try to offer some meta-analysis.  But bottom line is that today was not an easy one, I had to deal with some issues, and the thought of trying to come up with a strong, rational 5-star blog post is just way beyond me right now.

But rather than grab a pitchfork and light my torch, I want to throw out something that drifted through my mind during the day as I was catching bits and pieces of reaction.

Perhaps having a Marketing Partner Program might provide some light and spark.  

Before you lay your own meaning on top of "Marketing Partner Program", let me explain my direction here.  Otherwise, this sounds like something that is WAY different than what I am thinking...

IBM has a Design Partner Program that they use to get input on technical direction of the Notes/Domino product.  The group is made up of a number of high-profile members of the community who have no problems telling IBM where they're off-base and where they're on track.  No, I'm not part of the program.  But it appears that the program has made a difference in what you see when releases come out.

Translate that same concept into marketing.  Take your front-line advocates out in the trenches, the ones who see and are affected by the message each day.  Pair them with the IBM areas who are responsible for marketing messages.  AGREE TO LISTEN TO EACH OTHER!  Bring in your ad agency to talk to the group.  Heck, spring some of that cash to bring in a Seth Godin for a retreat with this group.  See what comes out of it.  

This isn't a program to pay business partners to push products.  It isn't an incentive program to sell licenses.  It's a group designed to learn from each other and to ultimately contribute to the success of Lotus in the marketplace.  We see things you don't.  You see things from a perspective we don't normally inhabit.  There has GOT to be a way to bring those two perspectives together to get the best of both.

Because at least from our perspective out here, it appears that we've hit the definition of insanity...  doing the same thing over and over, expecting different results each time.

05/03/2009

Time for one of those "line in the sand", things have to change posts...

Category Everything Else
OK...  this is one of those non-technical, personal, "I'm sick of my status quo" posts.  If you're looking for book reviews or off-base technology analysis, you're free to move on.

So I turn 48 in less than a week.  Mentally, I still feel like that 14 year old awkward teenager who doesn't quite know how to fit in to the world he finds himself in.  Physically, I keep thinking that all those workouts I did in my late teens/early twenties are still evident.  And then you see the pictures...  and you find yourself breathing hard after doing something that you think only old people should have problems with.  You see people who you consider overweight, and then you check the charts, only to find that you would be diagnosed as "morbidly obese".  Couple all those things together with all the stress at work and other areas, and the picture isn't pretty.

Basically, I'm 48, I'm in the worst shape of my life, and I'm killing myself.

Starting next Monday, I start a program at work called Kinetix (http://www.kinetixliving.com/home.php).  It's a comprehensive program of eating and exercise, designed to get you to a healthy state.  Within that program, our work has a number of "lottery slots" for four week programs where you work with a personal trainer for an hour a day, five days a week.  I could sit here and tell you I know everything they're going to tell me about cardio and strength training, as I've been there before.  Sad that I've let that all go to waste.  During the upcoming week, I'll be getting "assessed", body comp analyzed, and all those other things that make you come face to face with the fact that...  well...  you're fat.

I normally bemoan the tendency of media and people in general to use ever-increasing hype and sensationalism to make points or to get attention.  Therefore, to sit here and say "this is a last chance" would probably be overly dramatic.  On the other hand, It's not a stretch to look at my current state and say I'm living on borrowed time.  

Kinetix won't fix all my other problems, such as my pigpen of an office, lack of focus, feeling pulled in 20 directions, etc.  But if I can at least get something moving on my health, I would hope that it would translate to more energy to clean up other areas.  And to say I *know* this will work would be a lie, as I've said the same thing about weight watchers, jenny craig, and every other attempt to battle my weight over the years.  But I've not undertaken those at apoint in life (likely fewer years looking forward than back) and realized that the 3rd quarter is clicking down, and the score doesn't look good for the home team.

So if I seem a bit withdrawn over the next few weeks, you'll know that my mental state isn't the greatest.  Either that, or I'm unable to move after the trainer has gotten done with me...

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Thomas "Duffbert" Duff

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