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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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07/27/2010

Book Review - Hackers: Heroes of the Computer Revolution - 25th Anniversary Edition by Steven Levy

Category Book Review Steven Levy Hackers: Heroes of the Computer Revolution - 25th Anniversary Edition
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To find out how you got to where you're at, you often have to look at where you came from.  In the world of computers, that means going back to the late 1950's to observe the mindset and personalities that shaped the growth of the personal computer.  Steven Levy has what could be considered the best analysis of those individuals in his book Hackers: Heroes of the Computer Revolution - 25th Anniversary Edition.  Yes, it's been 25 years since since this book was first published in 1985.  But it's as relevant now as it was then.  I read this book quite some time ago and enjoyed it immensely.  My enjoyment with rereading it hasn't diminished.  

Contents:
Part 1 - True Hackers - Cambridge - The Fifties and Sixties: The Tech Model Railroad Club; The Hacker Ethic; Spacewar; Greenblatt and Gosper; The Midnight Computer Wiring Society; Winners and Losers; Life
Part 2 - Hardware Hackers - Northern California - The Seventies: Revolt in 2100; Every Man a God; The Homebrew Computer Club; Tiny BASIC; Woz; Secrets
Part 3 - Game Hackers - The Sierras - The Eighties: The Wizard and the Princess; The Brotherhood; The Third Generation; Summer Camp; Frogger; Applefest; Wizard vs. Wizards
Part 4 - The Last of the True Hackers - Cambridge - 1983: The Last of the True Hackers; Afterword - Ten Years Later; Afterword - 2010
Notes; Acknowledgments; About the Author

When you walk into a Best Buy or any other retailer today, you simply pick up the computer you want, head home, plug it in, and away you go.  But when you go back to the beginning, you start to understand just how amazing these things are.  Levy steps into the inner sanctums of the large mainframe computers, devices that cost millions of dollars and allowed few the privilege of touching them.  But there were some who immediately understood the power and the vision, and they weren't going to be denied the opportunity to play, learn, and push the limits.  Hackers goes from those who spent time re-engineering model railroad layouts to those who took that same drive to the world of bits and bytes.  Everything was a challenge, what with virtually no memory and nothing much in the way of input/output devices.  But even though their efforts weren't always appreciated or welcome, these hackers continued to lead the way to discover what *was* possible.  As the mainframes continued to shrink, more and more individuals focused on what could be done if you put the CPU and memory together with a keyboard and screen.  The Homebrew Computer Club was the birthplace of people like Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak, who went on to form Apple and create the history of the personal computer.  Levy also digs into the birth of the fast-paced world of computer gaming, when companies like Atari, Apple, Sierra, and others wrote computer games to push the boundaries of the ever-more-powerful personal computers, while also making the programmers literal superstars and millionaires.  For those who had the right skills and the drive to learn, there was seemingly nothing they couldn't accomplish.  

What makes the book shine, over and above the historical narrative, is the commentary and analysis of the hacker code and mentality.  At the start, there was little financial gain to be found by writing code and building new devices to hook onto the computer.  As such, the creed was that everything was open and information was to be shared.  But as time progressed and companies started to form around software and hardware, it became harder to maintain that pure approach, and information started to become proprietary.  Things once open and free came with price tags.  People like Richard Stallman, the last "true hacker", railed against this "perversion" (as he still does today), but few follow him at the level of fanaticism he demands.  But understanding his mindset helps to understand the philosophy behind open source software, where software is still free as in beer and free as in speech.

If you haven't read Hackers, either in the original or new edition, I would recommend it.  It's a fascinating read.  

07/27/2010

Google Apps for Government Meets Federal Security Standard - My guess is that this will hurt Notes with the US government...

Category IBM/Lotus Google
From eWeek: Google Apps for Government Meets Federal Security Standard

Google introduced Google Apps for Government, accommodated by FISMA certification. FISMA is essentially the government's seal of approval of Google Apps as a secure cloud computing collaboration platform, something Microsoft lacks for its own cloud suites.

Google July 26 launched Google Apps for Government and earned a key security credit that makes its collaboration software for the cloud viable for federal agencies.

So now the Google cloud has gained government certification for security in their online offering.

However, unlike the standard, education and premier editions of Google Apps, Google Apps for Government has been awarded Federal Information Security Management Act (FISMA) certification and accreditation from the U.S. government's General Services Administration.

FISMA calls for all information systems used by U.S. federal government agencies to have the utmost security. The GSA sports 15,000 e-mail accounts and oversees government procurement in the United States.

The article goes on to point out that the GSA has their email contract out for renewal at the end of the year.  While they're on Notes right now, there's no guarantee that they'll stay that way.  

My guess is that this certification and Google offering is going to have major ramifications on the Notes market within the federal government.  At $50 per person per year, that's pretty cheap for email.  And the argument surrounding the use of the cloud for government (and other) email has always been the security surrounding the email and storage thereof.  If the offering is "certified", that will put off a lot of those arguments and make it that much easier to justify the decision.

Who knows what way the GSA will go?  I'm sure (or should I say "I HOPE!") IBM and Lotus are in there pushing to make this a competitive save, but I must say that I am not overly optimistic that this will turn out well...

07/24/2010

Book Review - Storm by Dave Pearson

Category Book Review Dave Pearson Storm
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Fair warning... I really like cyber-thrillers, especially with a liberal dose of hacking thrown in.  To that end, I had no problems saying yes to reviewing Storm by Dave Pearson.  For a first novel, Pearson did quite well.  He throws together a virtual band of hackers who come together to hack the biggest prize of all, the Intelink high-security top-secret intranet run by the US government.  But to do so, they need to slip into a heavily guarded compound on a isolated island during the middle of a war games training exercise and gain access to the computers there.  Once inside, they can assemble and insert a state-of-the-art virus to gather the data they want and can sell to the highest bidder.

It might be a bit too much to expect that a team of stereotypical hackers could operate as a combat commando unit.  But Pearson puts down a back story (and reveals more towards the end) that makes it all imaginable in terms of a cyber-thriller plot.  There are also a number of plot twists and turns as the story unfolds, making it a page-turner... "just one more chapter, then I'll turn out the light..."  And since he positions this as the first of a series, I'm looking forward to the next installment.

Storm is that book that would work great as a beach or vacation read... just sit back and go for a wild ride.

Disclosure:
Obtained From: Publisher
Payment: Free

07/24/2010

Book Review - The Heart Mender: A Story of Second Chances by Andy Andrews

Category Book Review Andy Andrews The Heart Mender: A Story of Second Chances
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Andy Andrews is a master at telling stories that weave principles into the narrative.  His latest book, The Heart Mender: A Story of Second Chances, is no different.  He takes a true story that he experienced, and shows how anger can destroy a life and how forgiveness can set that life free.  

Andrews discovered a buried "treasure" while trying to remove a tree from his property.  It was a can that contained a family picture, some buttons, a ring, and a medal that traced back to the German submarine corps from World War II.  Given that this was found on the Gulf coast in Alabama, it did present a real mystery as to how it got there.  He starts to talk with some of the older people in the community, those who would have been around during the war.  What he learns is a surprise to him.  The Germans were active in the Gulf with their U-Boats, sinking cargo ships to disrupt the American war effort.  But much of this was hushed up by the government to prevent a loss of morale by those at home.  This explains how a submariner might have been present in Alabama, but what was the story behind the picture?  Andrews finally finds a couple that remember certain incidents at the time, and they tell him a tale of lost love and hate.  But through forgiveness and understanding, hate is soon replaced by love and freedom from a self-imposed prison.

Even if  you aren't interested in the principle angle of the book, the story is still fascinating.  The first question that almost everyone asks him (and it would have been my primary question also) is "this is true?"  He explains it as "yes, for the most part."  Before you start to think it's fabricated, it's not.  It's just that he's changed locations and names as the primary players are still alive.  The experiences and general events *did* happen, and it's due to forgiveness that all things worked out as they did.  

The Heart Mender is an excellent read, both for the example of how forgiveness can heal, and for the story of survival during war time in an unfamiliar country.

Disclosure:
Obtained From: Publisher
Payment: Free

07/19/2010

Book Review - Noah's Castle by John Rowe Townsend

Category Book Review John Rowe Townsend Noah's Castle
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I was recently contacted by a publisher asking if I was interested in reading a title that they had available.  The book was Noah's Castle by John Rowe Townsend.  This offer came from the review I did of One Second After, and Noah's Castle walks in the same general genre.  Even though this was initially released in 1975 and was targeted as a young adult offering, it aged well and speaks to all readers regardless of age.  I found myself reading "just one more chapter", and this morning I'm suffering a bit for not going to bed earlier.

The story is set in England, and life is hard (and getting harder).  There's an economic crisis, and inflation is starting to make it harder to afford basic goods.  Barry Mortimer, a 16-year-old typical teenager, lives with his three other siblings, his mother, and a very controlling and autocratic father.  Norman, the father, sees the deteriorating economy and buys a large fortress-like home without consulting anyone.  He moves the family to their new abode (something that didn't go over well with any of them), and then starts becoming secretive about his activities in the basement.  It turns out he's starting to buy and barter to obtain a massive store of food to weather the crisis.  As hyperinflation kicks in, millions go hungry, but the Mortimer family is still doing fine.  But Norman's dictatorial obsession over hoarding is driving his family away from him as they see others going without.  To increase the tension, hoarding is now considered a crime, and Norman knows that a single phone call could destroy everything he's done to provide for his family.  As people start to notice his family's lack of activity to gather food, Norman's world becomes more fragile (along with his mental stability).

The reason this is considered a young adult novel is that it's written in first-person from the point of view of Barry.  He's been raised to be loyal to his father and to obey, but he has major problems reconciling his abundance with the poverty and need around him.  He's walking a fine line between keeping things quiet and helping those who ask (without appearing to have an abundance himself).  As the reader, I kept shifting my opinion of Norman between uncaring for others over providing for his family.  I was also intrigued by the societal shifts and how easy it is for something like hyperinflation to feed on itself with no conceivable end in sight.  Townsend doesn't go into great detail about the mechanics behind why England found themselves in this situation, but it's still a sobering look at how difficult life could be in that situation.

Noah's Castle is a very good read, made even more interesting given the 35 year gap between the original story and today.

Disclosure:
Obtained From: Publisher
Payment: Free

07/17/2010

Book Review - The Parkour and Freerunning Handbook by Dan Edwardes

Category Book Review Dan Edwardes The Parkour and Freerunning Handbook
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No, I'm not planning on taking up a new activity that would likely land me in the hospital within a week (if not sooner).  But I *do* find the videos of parkour fascinating.  When I saw the book The Parkour and Freerunning Handbook by Dan Edwardes show up at my local library, I figured it was worth a quick read just to find out more about the sport.  This is the perfect book for someone curious about parkour and how practitioners are able to leap and dive over obstacles with ease.  And if you were actually interested in getting started, there's enough information here to learn the basics while getting a solid grounding in how to keep from killing yourself in the process.

I think what surprised me most is that its really more of a philosophy and life attitude, akin to something you might find within the martial arts.  It combines play, lifestyle, discipline, and methodology.  Those who are serious about parkour start to view it as the foundation of all movement, the ability to flow with the environment and use the body to overcome barriers that normally block our paths.  I can easily see how it could become the basis of an entire fitness regimen, as it combines strength, flexibility, and cardiovascular activities into a single sport.  That's probably why the videos you see of parkour always seem to have people who look incredibly fit and ripped.  

The Parkour and Freerunning Handbook was a quick read for what I was looking to get out of it, and it will change the way I view parkour videos from here on out.  The "wow" factor will remain, but it will also be joined by a solid appreciation of what it takes to get to that level.  

Disclosure:
Obtained From: Library
Payment: Borrowed

07/17/2010

Book Review - Celebritize Yourself: The Three Step Method to Increase Your Visibility and Explode Your Business by Marsha Friedman

Category Book Review Marsha Friedman Celebritize Yourself: The Three Step Method to Increase Your Visibility and Explode Your Business
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I realize that some people will react negatively to the thought of becoming a "celebrity", as that often has a connotation of hype and falseness.  But in Marsha Friedman's book Celebritize Yourself: The Three Step Method to Increase Your Visibility and Explode Your Business, she makes the argument that becoming a celebrity is simply the process of becoming the "name" in your field, the person that everyone thinks of and refers to when they talk about your area of interest.  Reaching this level of visibility and reputation opens doors and gives you opportunities that you wouldn't otherwise get.  Her method made a lot of sense to me, and gave me a lot of things to think about going forward.

Contents:
Acknowledgments; Who Is This Book For; Everyone Has a Celebrity Within Them!; Isn't it Time You Walked into the Limelight?; The Joy of Becoming the Celebrity in Your Field; Why Do You Want to Become a Celebrity?; First, Know Thyself; It All Starts With a Book; From Community Celebrity to National Celebrity; How to be a Great Radio or TV Guest and Quoted in the News!; The Celebritize Yourself Quiz; Fine Your Media Niche?; Now Let's Get Started!; The Big Payoff; About the Author; Bibliography

Becoming a celebrity is all about branding yourself as an expert.  Friedman shows that many people are quite competent at what they do, and they may even be the go-to person when others have questions.  But that often doesn't extend beyond the company they work for or the business they run.  As a whole, no one else knows about them.  Why settle for that, when you can spread your message and influence to a wider audience if you have a passion for something?  Friedman guides you through the process of thinking through what really motivates you, what makes you get excited when you wake up each morning.  She also helps you figure out *why* you want to go the next step and expand your audience and influence.  Once you have those reasons in place, you can start to work on her three steps.  Those steps are write, speak, and sell.

Key to her process is writing a book on your topic.  Having a book with your name on it instantly sets you apart from the crowd.  If you can't write well, then hire or work with someone who can put your knowledge and passion into words.  Next, you need to speak publically.  This can be in seminars, interviews, TV appearances, or any other media outlet that will get your name and face out there.  I know this is a major fear of many people (public speaking), but it's a critical skill to possess.  Take classes in public speaking, join Toastmasters, practice in front of small groups, whatever.  The fear may not ever go away, but it can be channelled to motivate you to do better.  Finally, you need to sell.  This can be your product,  your knowledge, your time... whatever it is that adds to your income.  Becoming an expert is no good if it doesn't lead to monetary opportunities.  But getting the reputation gives you a much better chance of closing the sale.

Becoming a celebrity in your field isn't easy.  In fact, it's hard work.  But I found that Celebritize Yourself made the case as to why the hard work is necessary and worth it.  I could see myself in her pages, and it wasn't hard to see myself following her recommendations.  In fact, given some of the opportunities I've been working on of late, I find myself already moving down her recommended path.  There's a lot here for me to think about...

Disclosure:
Obtained From: Author
Payment: Free

07/16/2010

Book Review - The Checklist Manifesto: How to Get Things Right by Atul Gawande

Category Book Review Atul Gawande The Checklist Manifesto: How to Get Things Right
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The Checklist Manifesto: How to Get Things Right by Atul Gawande is a book I'd heard about a number of months ago and meant to read long before now.  But a long hold list at the library and then a messed-up checkout (that put me at the end of the long list again!) conspired against me until now.  The main gist of the book is that the rigorous use of the lowly checklist can radically improve your chances of getting the correct outcome of a job or task, even if that task is highly complex.  Gawande applied the checklist methodology to his job as a surgeon, not expecting it to have much of an impact on results.  But to his surprise, using a checklist had a direct impact on the rate of errors on nearly a daily basis.  And in one dramatic case, it even saved a patient's life.  

Contents:
The Problem of Extreme Complexity; The Checklist; The End of the Master Builder; The Idea; The First Try; The Checklist Factory; The Test; The Hero in the Age of Checklists; The Save; Notes on Sources; Acknowledgments

Gawande's personal experience with learning to use checklists comes from an engagement with the World Health Organization.  He was tasked to find a way to reduce the risk of surgeries on a worldwide basis, as indications were that the volume of surgeries were increasing along with negative outcomes.  To complicate matters, these improvements had to be applicable across the complete spectrum of hospitals and facilities, from well-funded research hospitals to small understaffed clinics in third world countries with no supplies.  And you thought *your* latest project was impossible?  After hearing from a number of doctors, patients, and other people with a stake in the project, the group came up with the idea that a checklist might be the answer.  Given the typical view that the doctor is God when it comes to health care, recommending something so mechanical and simplistic didn't meet with overwhelming enthusiasm.  But as Gawande illustrates with various stories and documentation, the checklist actually did have a dramatic impact on outcomes, causing all the members of the surgical team to share information and root out assumptions and misinformation *before* it was too late.  Gawande also covers the use of checklists in both the building trade and in the daily life of aircraft pilots.  By eliminating the idea that one person can know and understand everything, the checklist becomes the single tool that allows everyone to take the proper steps that are proven to work or ensure that the proper safeguards are in place to handle any risks or emergencies.

While the book is heavy on narrative and proof that checklists work across a number of trades and industries, it seems rather light on the details of checklist creation and methodology.  There are suggestions and recommendations along the way (no more than one page, somewhere between five and nine items, etc.), but they are scattered in the different stories and narratives.  There are also no examples of checklists that have worked well for specific situations.  Granted, a surgical checklist won't be applicable to me as a software developer, nor would a pre-flight checklist be of any use to a builder.  But seeing actual checklist examples to back up recommendations scattered throughout the book would have helped, in my opinion.  Basically, there's no single chapter you can go to that summarizes what a good checklist should be, how it should be used, and what to keep in mind when writing one.  A chapter like that would have made this an excellent book for both learning and reference.

Even with my reservations about the lack of a consolidating chapter, The Checklist Manifesto is still an important book to read and understand.  It's started me thinking beyond my current practice of doing things from memory (and often forgetting one or more steps or checkpoints), and I can see how using checklists as a regular part of one's job could lead to a definite improvement in how things turn out.  There's a reason you want your pilot doing things "by the list" instead of "from memory"...

Disclosure:
Obtained From: Library
Payment: Borrowed

07/12/2010

So just how secure is your Domino server from attempts to hack into it?

Category IBM/Lotus
So as I was going through the Google News Alerts, I see this blog posting in CIO.com from another post over at infosecisland.com titled Hacking Lotus Notes.  Often these types of stories are a bit more fluff than fire, but this one actually talks techniques and specific attacks... for instance:

IBM Lotus Domino Server is a solution for the corporate environment that provides different services to manage electronic documents, and it includes many models such as Mail server, Http server and Data base. The current version is Lotus Domino 8.5.1.

To detect the server we start by scanning the network, usually the server runs a web interface Lotus Domino httpd, so we run Nmap and scan the targeted network as follows:

Nmap –sV 172.16.1.0.24 –p 80
Nmap scan report for 172.16.1.7
Host is up (0.017s latency).
Not shown: 65533 filtered ports
PORT STATE SERVICE VERSION
80 open http Lotus Domino httpd

Now as you can see the IP address of the Domino server is found and you can open your web browser to check some nice Domino web pages with the version: http://serverip/homepage.nsf.

You can use the Google Hack method to find all web servers running on Domino by searching for inurl:homepage.nsf. In the results you will find thousands of Domino based web pages. Now it is very important to note that you should not attempt training yourself on these sites.

Based on this, you can see the rest of the article is probably going to go down the path of what steps to take to fine the weak spot in your environment.  This sounds like a perfect article to print out and use to attack your own system before someone else with far worse intentions decides to do it for you...

07/12/2010

IamLUG... it's getting close!

Category IamLUG
The days are counting down for IamLUG!  If you haven't registered and want to attend, NOW would be a good time to do so!

For 2010, the event will take place August 2-3 in St Louis, MO at the HoteLumiere.  Attending IamLUG is FREE, but seats are limited, so registration is required for all attendees, sponsors and potential speakers.  For more information on travel, lodging and things to do in St. Louis, check the FAQ page where information is being added constantly.

07/11/2010

Book Review - Caught by Harlan Coben

Category Book Review Harlan Coben Caught
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It's always a treat when a new Harlan Coben novel comes out.  Caught is his latest, and like many of his other novels I felt like I was constantly guessing as to what was reality and was was perception with the characters.  I was also struck by how easy it is for the media to destroy someone's life based on whatever agenda they care to push.  There are certain accusations that when made, regardless of whether they are true or not, will forever mar a person's reputation and more.

The story centers around a youth worker who is caught in a child abuse media sting.  He's lured by a phone call to a deserted house where he thinks he's going to have to help one of his charges, but instead he's met by a media attack team bent on accusing him of setting up a rendezvous with a minor.  The reporter is known for these types of investigations, and even the mere hint of this type of accusation ruins the youth worker's life (and eventually leads to his murder).  But after she finishes that episode, she's laid off and finds herself unemployed.  The youth worker contacts her to try and explain what is really going on, and she gets sucked back into the story since she has nothing else to do.  But as she digs deeper, she becomes more and more confused as to whether she was accurate in her original reporting.  In fact, it may well be that she's uncovered a deeper conspiracy designed to destroy the lives of a number of former college roommate, one of which was the youth worker.

Caught is a solid Coben novel with a number of levels of twists and misdirections.  This is the perfect type of book I'd want to have on vacation for a few hours of relaxed reading in the sun.

Disclosure:
Obtained From: Library
Payment: Borrowed

07/10/2010

Book Review - Columbine by Dave Cullen

Category Book Review Dave Cullen Columbine
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In many ways, the Columbine school shootings have the same milestone effect on society as do events like 9/11 or the Oklahoma City bombing.  Columbine forever changed the way we look at school safety and the mental health of students.  But unfortunately, much of what we "remember" about the event is inaccurate due to media hype and official stonewalling.  Dave Cullen reveals the actual story behind the events with exhaustive research in his book Columbine.  When I finished reading, I had to seriously re-examine many of the convenient reasons that have been given for what transpired.  It's a complex story with few easy answers that go beyond knee-jerk reactions.

Culllen spent ten years of his life living this story, combing through over 250,000 documents and conducting countless interviews.  I was immediately impressed that all the dialog and conversations that are recounted are either verbatim quotes from interviews or documented exchanges by the different parties.  Too many of these types of books are littered with "creative license" when it comes to filling the gaps in the story.  Not so here...  There's no problem when it comes to determining what is fact and what is fiction when you wonder who said what.  Furthermore, there was little evidence of the author having a particular platform to push or axe to grind in coming to conclusions.  He takes on many of the "facts" such as Cassie Bernall's "martyrdom" or the existence of the "Trench Coat Mafia."  While Bernall's story made for inspirational religious material, evidence shows her face-to-face dialogue with the shooter never occurred.  Media loved the existence of the Trench Coat Mafia angle as it hinted at a wide-spread dark conspiracy.  In truth, Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold acted on their own, motivated primarily by rage towards all people, not some specific group as was generally thought.  Cullen looks deep into the minds of Harris and Klebold during the years leading up to the shootings, and presents a very disturbing view of two kids who became obsessed with ending their lives on a very bloody stage.

After reading Columbine, I understand a bit better how hard it is to draw the line when it comes to being "safe."  There were signs, such as Harris's online writings, that would have led one to think that authorities needed to intervene.  In fact, police officials were aware of many of these signs, but never completely followed up on them.  And when they were followed up on, Harris exhibited psychopathic behavior by convincing everyone that he was truly sorry or that things were not as they appeared.  So while intervention did occur, it ultimately failed to prevent the tragedy.  Could or should more have been done?  Obviously, after the fact the answer is yes.  But do we have the resources to follow up on *every* report and suspicion that is leveled against anyone?  No.  And somewhere in there is a very blurry line that can never be clearly defined.

Columbine is not an easy book to read.  But it's an essential read for understanding the events that occurred on April 20th, 1999, as well as the people who were behind it.  And with that knowledge, perhaps we'll be better equipped to understand and respond in time to intervene before someone else decides to follow the examples of Harris and Klebold.  History since 1999 has shown us that we'll never be able to prevent them entirely, but we'll never know about the ones that *didn't* occur due to better understanding of what to look for.  

Disclosure:
Obtained From: Library
Payment: Borrowed

07/10/2010

Book Review - Sh*t My Dad Says by Justin Halpern

Category Book Review Justin Halpern Sh*t My Dad Says
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I think many blogger and Twitter users secretly dream of creating a viral site that turns into a book deal.  Justin Halpern hit that jackpot when his Twitter content became insanely popular and led to his book Sh*t My Dad Says.  If you've followed Halpern's Twitter account Sh*tMyDadSays (you need to replace the asterisk with a vowel), you pretty much know what to expect in terms of philosophy and advice from Halpern's dad.  I'd quote some of the one-liners, but most of them are not such that they would pass any sort of text filter here. :)  But even though the language is raw, you can't help but laugh at his dad's life-is-tough-and-don't-expect-sympathy attitude.

Normally these blog/Tweet-to-book offerings leave a bit to be desired, as you've read most of the material if you've followed the site for any length of time.  Halpern avoids that issue by actually writing material specific to the book.  He offers up a number of stories that involve him and his father over the course of his life, everything from being a six year old having to share a hotel room with his grandfather, to being a 28 year old guy having to move back home and live with his parents.  Of course, without the last incident, we probably would know nothing of Halpern, as it's that event that launched his Twitter account and subsequent book deal.  But after reading the book, you realize that even though his dad can be a caustic curmudgeon, he really does love his kid and would do anything for him.  He just has a unique way of explaining it. :)

Sh*t My Dad Says won't appeal to everyone, probably due to language.  But if that doesn't bother you, this will definitely lead to more than a few laughs, both due to comedic content and blunt reality...

Disclosure:
Obtained From: Library
Payment: Borrowed

07/05/2010

Book Review - The Handy Law Answer Book by David L. Hudson Jr.

Category Book Review David L. Hudson Jr. The Handy Law Answer Book
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The world of law can be confusing and mysterious, starting with the history of our legal system clear through to practical every-day questions like "what is a tort?" (and it's not a dessert!)  David L. Hudson Jr. does an excellent job in demystifying the topic in his book The Handy Law Answer Book.  Even if you don't have a specific question or topic of immediate concern, the material is just plain interesting and leads to more than a few "gee, I didn't know that" moments.

Contents:
Constitutional Law; The Bill of Rights and 14th Amendment; The Court System; Lawyers and Lawsuits; Criminal Procedures; Credit and Bankruptcy Law; Employment Law; Family Law; Personal Injury Law; Appendix A - Explanation of Case and Statute Citations; Appendix B - The Constitution of the United States of America; Appendix C - Online Resources; Glossary; Index

Each of the chapters follow a common style.  The core material in the chapter is in the form of answers to a question.  For instance, the Constitutional Law section starts out with "What is the primary source of law in the United States?" followed by "What exactly does the U.S. Constitution do?"  The answers vary from a single paragraph to two or three pages, but in all cases the information is readily understandable by the average reader.  Coupled with the questions, Hudson adds LegalSpeak sidebars that highlight specific court cases that helped to shape the law in that area.  An example would be the Miranda v. Arizona (1966) case that was the cornerstone for the Supreme Court ruling preventing self-incrimination without warning of the right to an attorney during questioning (the Miranda warning).  These two writing techniques, when put together, do a great job in both providing specific answers as well as context as to why things are as they are.

Personally, I enjoyed the first chapter more than any other (but that's not to say the other chapters aren't good!)  Hudson covers the history of our legal system going back to the formation of the constitution, and discusses how the debate between federal and state rights was a contentious issue, and not one that was easily solved.  I came away with a greater appreciation for how much work it took to come up with a viable system that was acceptable to everyone, as well as how it continues to evolve to this very day.  While not perfect, it's still amazing that it's stood up so well after all this time.

Regardless of whether you have specific questions or just looking for general background, The Handy Law Answer Book is well worth the read.

Disclosure:
Obtained From: Publicist
Payment: Free

07/04/2010

Book Review - It's About Time by Harold C. Lloyd

Category Book Review Harold C. Lloyd It's About Time
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In the business arena, it seems like there's never a balance between demands and time availability.  You could often work 20 hours a day and still not keep up on all the work requirements that flow your way.  Harold C. Lloyd works on correcting that imbalance with his book It's About Time: Find 5 Extra Hours Each Week.  Given his background in the retail industry, he's dealt with most of these issues and has come up with a series of tips and techniques that will definitely have an impact at some level for you.  In fact, you may find even more of a return than five hours if you're especially bad at certain things, like delegation.

Contents:
Finding Five More Hours; Slicing Your Pie of Life; The 20-Minute Disappearing Act; ZAP! the Distractions; Make the To-Do List!; Don't Wait to Delegate; Never Accept the Baton; Make Meetings Meaningful; Careful Recruiting Saves Time; Discipline Progressively; The Last Ten Minutes of the Day; Reclaim Your Five Hours

This book does an excellent job with practicality.  It's written in such a way that you're constantly focused on how these tips would work and how they would apply to you.  The chapters start and end with a vignette that puts the specific time-sink in a real-life scenario.  A fictitious character is struggling to keep up with work but is failing due to one of the time factors, such as getting bombarded, or "piranha-ed", as soon as they walk into the office.  After discussing the causes and solutions to the problem, the story is continued from the point of view of having implemented the technique.  The chapter summary and "Timeless Advice" sections that wrap up the chapter help to solidify the learning and also makes for a nice reference point if you go back later for a refresher.

While this book is targeted more for business leaders, it's quite possible to use a number of the techniques at whatever level you're at.  To Do lists are always valuable, as is reserving the first 20 and last 10 minutes of the day for planning and reflection.  I personally have to work on not accepting the baton, which means taking back work when someone else decides they can't finish it or they don't have the solution.  It's far too easy for me to fall into the "I'll just do it myself as it's faster" routine instead of working with the person to coach them on how they can do it themselves.  If I got that technique down, I'd definitely reclaim a few hours in my work week for other projects.

So long as you remember that It's About Time is focused on business-related time management, it's a good resource for sorting out the time sinks that kill off your productivity in the workplace.

Disclosure:
Obtained From: Publisher
Payment: Free

07/03/2010

Book Review - Blood Prophecy by Stefan Petrucha

Category Book Review Stefan Petrucha Blood Prophecy
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I am not normally a reader of vampire or vampire-like novels.  In fact, mention that a book *has* a vampire in it, and I'm pretty much off to find another title.  So don't ask me how I ended up deciding to accept this book for reviewing... Blood Prophecy by Stefan Petrucha.  Must have been a moment of weakness.  And to make it even more strange, I have to confess... I actually liked the book.  What is the world coming to?

The story revolves around one Jeremiah Fall, a settler in the newly formed American colonies.  Like many people of that time, his life is hard, and the village revolves around survival and religious activities.  But his existence changes dramatically when his father is attacked and killed by a mysterious beast that has the villagers on edge.  Things turn even more bizarre when his father comes back to life and attacks the family, looking to feed on their blood.  Fall and his mother "die" in the attack, but his grandfather waits for him to return to life and risks his own life to teach Fall to resist the evil within him.  Fall struggles to coexist with his internal cravings and starts a quest to find out who and what he is, and if there's a chance for him to be cured.  

His quest takes him to the Middle East where he discovers the Rosetta Stone.  But at the time he discovers it, a dark power it possesses speaks to his internal beast and seems to be drawing him to a place and time where a final confrontation between good and evil will play out.  Unless Fall can overcome who he is and what he's become, the entire existence of the world as we know it will cease to be.  But to do that, he not only has to give in to his longings to feed on humans, but he has to risk the only thing he's ever allowed himself to love in over 150 years.

Perhaps the reason I enjoyed Blood Prophecy more than I expected is that it doesn't fall into the "glittery vampire" genre that seems to be all the rage these days.  Fall is a brutal killer who only barely keeps his needs and abilities hidden from others.  The tie into the Rosetta Stone and what it originally was for put a nice unexpected twist on the story that added to my interest levels.  It was only at the end when the final confrontation got into some unusual turns that I started to get a bit impatient with the whole good vs. evil philosophy story.  I just wanted to see how it ended and whether Fall would finally get his answers (and some well-deserved human-ness).

Blood Prophecy is a good read for those who are into the supernatural genre and who like a strong historical angle in their story.  Petrucha did a very good job here.


Disclosure:
Obtained From: Publisher
Payment: Free

07/02/2010

BoysTown achieves the Lotus position — without Exchange

Category
From ITWire: BoysTown achieves the Lotus position — without Exchange

This is one of the best articles I've seen of late talking about a company faced with a Notes vs Exchange comparison, and how they logically worked out their decision:

When Australian youth charity BoysTown was looking at the future of its Lotus Notes/Domino collaboration platform late in 2009, ICT manager Julius Bergh knew that the group had to make a decision.

“We have seen in the press, that a number of organisations have changed over to Exchange,” he says in an interview this week. “We thought to ourselves that we had better investigate this thing thoroughly.”

There have been quite a few revelations of Australian migrations off the Lotus Notes/Domino over the past few months — with one high-profile move being that of Qantas, whose shift was revealed in February. Centrelink is also likely to end its long-running relationship with Notes as part of the welfare agency’s integration with the new, broader Department of Human Services.

And analyst firms such as Longhaus have questioned Notes’ future in the face of Exchange’s dominance and competing cloud-based services such as Google’s Gmail, which are speedily encroaching on Notes’ traditional turf.

So Bergh sent a few members from his team over to a conference in Brisbane on how to move to Exchange 2010 to scope out the Microsoft platform — check out the lay of the land and see what would be involved in a migration of Boystown’s 480 staff. What they found disappointed him.

He honestly admits that there were (and *are*) good reasons for them to move to Microsoft.  But...

There were some clear advantages if Boystown did choose the Exchange platform, Bergh admits.

For example, the organisation is a charity — which Bergh says translates to some “nice discounts” from Microsoft. In addition, users are generally more familiar with Exchange’s user interface because they often use the software on their personal PCs, or have used it at other workplaces. “We did take it quite seriously,” he says.

However, ultimately what swung Bergh to upgrade the software was one aspect of Notes that its userbase in Australia often cites as one of it’s main strengths — the extensibility of the platform compared with its rivals. Bergh points out that Notes is much more than just an email server.

And I *still* can't believe the distortion reality field that causes so many companies to overlook this central issue:

If Boystown was to use a rival collaboration offering, Bergh says, he would need to buy quite a few more corporate applications just to match the functionality that Notes already offers.

These are the types of things that all of us should focus on when touting the value of Notes.  And I love the way it wraps up:

But ultimately when speaking about Notes, for Bergh it all comes back to the inherent flexibility of the platform — arguing that it’s so much more than an email platform.

“If you buy Lotus Domino because you like the email system, it’s like buying a porche because you like the ashtray,” he chuckles.

07/01/2010

Book Review - One Second After by William R. Forstchen

Category Book Review William R. Forstchen One Second After
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Imagine that one day, just like any other day, you're driving down the highway and your car dies for no reason... as do the thousands of other cars around you.  Electricity? Out.  Radio broadcast? Nothing there but static (provided the radio even works).  Cell phones? No signal, same as the landlines.  It doesn't *look* like a storm took out power, but how do you explain the utter failure of everything that you depend on in your life?  It could be an EMP... an electromagnetic pulse generated by a nuclear detonation high in the atmosphere that creates an electrical surge that destroys electrical devices as it races along.  This is the premise of William R. Forstchen's book One Second After.  The book can easily be thrown into the apocalyptic genre, but not so deeply that it loses its touch to people like you and me.  I found myself emotionally spent after reading this book, having experienced a few "wet eye" moments along the way due to some similarities between the lead character's situation and my own should that ever happen to me.  I really couldn't put the book down.

After the pulse renders much of modern civilization in the United States inoperable, the small town of Black Mountain, North Carolina starts to come together to try and make sense of it all.  John Matherson, a history professor with a military background, quickly figures out that an EMP is the most likely cause of the situation, and people start to look to him for leadership and moral guidance.  And the testing starts early... People stranded on the freeway wander into the town looking for food and lodging.  Stores begin to run out of food, and people start reverting to looting.  Most importantly for Matherson, medical supplies dwindle, and he has a daughter who is a type 1 diabetic, dependent on insulin for her survival.  He himself needs to tread a very thin line between playing by the rules or getting the extra insulin by force if necessary.  His wife has already died of breast cancer, and he is not going to let another family member die if he can help it.  

As the days unfold, the news only continues to get worse.  Asheville is demanding that Black Mountain take 5000 refugees.  They refuse the request as they don't have enough supplies for their own survival.  Food continues to dwindle, and severe rationing is put in place.  Martial law is imposed with death penalties for actions that endanger the survival of others.  As more and more people die off due to existing medical conditions, disease starts to decimate the community given the lack of sanitary conditions.  And the US government, the hope of survival for everyone in the town, is seemingly non-existent.  The townspeople start to come up with "old-time" methods for doing things we take for granted, but it still doesn't solve the problems related to no food and no medical supplies, as Matherson soon finds out as his daughter's insulin supply continues to shrink with no chance to obtain any more.

One Second After is definitely not a story with a happy or "feel good" ending.  Life has forever changed, sacrifice and duty are hard but necessary, and death is a daily companion, either for yourself or someone close to you.  Reading Matherson's frustration and despair when it comes to his daughter's diabetes was especially hard, as I have a son with the same condition.  I would end up in the same position as Matherson, with the same outcome in all likelihood.  The scenes of battle against superior forces attacking the town were also emotional, knowing that kids who had weeks before been attending college were now spread out on the front line with rifles, ready to die to protect their fellow townspeople.  It was hard not to get choked up over the heroic and selflessness displayed.

This is an excellent book on many different levels.  It shows our vulnerability to a weapon such as an EMP attack.  It exposes the true nature of human beings when societal controls are removed.  It also shows how people can come together and sacrifice for the common good if they have a leader who is strong enough to make the hard decisions.  This is definitely worth reading.

Disclosure:
Obtained From: Library
Payment: Borrowed

06/30/2010

Book Review - Horns by Joe Hill

Category Book Review Joe Hill Horns
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Most people have wished at some point in their lives for the ability to know what another person is thinking or feeling about them.  Ig Perrish has just received that gift, and it's not working out so well.  Couple that with the new set of horns that Perrish woke up with, and Perrish's life is headed downhill at terminal velocity.  But at least his new abilities will help him figure out who really killed his girlfriend on a cold rainy night a year ago.  That's the storyline in Joe Hill's latest horror novel titled Horns.  I haven't read any of Hill's work before, and I must say this was very different and "out there."  I found the constant time period shifts a bit disconcerting as the story would flash back to earlier times and work back up to the current crisis, but it didn't stop me from turning pages to see how the final showdown would play out.

Ig Perrish and Merrin Williams fell in love when they were quite young, and it looked as if they were destined to get married and live happily ever after.  But right before Perrish is supposed to head off to England for some volunteer work, Williams decides it would be best if they saw other people to make sure they were right for each other.  Perrish is devastated by the news, and gets plastered.  He leaves her at the bar after an angry confrontation, and sometime during the night she is raped and murdered in the woods next to an abandoned building which is a popular teen hangout.  Everyone is convinced that Perrish is the murderer, but nothing could be proved.  Perrish maintains his innocence, and is completely lost without her.

As the anniversary of her death approaches, Perrish goes out to the spot where she was found and vents his drunken rage at the whole situation.  In the morning, he wakes up to find he has a new body part... a pair of horns growing out of his head.  When he tries to go to the doctor to get them examined and removed (because he certainly can't explain how they got there), he finds the horns come with a new ability.  People looking at him forget the horns and start telling him their most darkest secrets and desires.  And if he touches them, he can see their sordid lives played out in instant clarity.  When he leaves, they can sort of remember talking with Perrish, but they have no idea as to the topic of conversation, and they don't remember the horns at all.  This isn't so great for Perrish, as he finds out that most everyone in town hates him and thinks he murdered Williams.  He also finds out far more about certain proclivities of the town's "upstanding" citizens.  The only good he can see coming from this gift is the chance to get someone to confess to the killing, allowing him to even the score and exact his revenge.  But even then, there's no guarantee that everyone will fall under the same spell and spill their guts.  That's up to Perrish to figure out...  who is telling the truth, and who is lying.

Horns is definitely a page-turner, as it's hard to tell exactly who is going to confess to what, and how long Perrish will be able to hold himself together before going completely off the deep end.  Because the story is told in a series of flashbacks to bring you up-to-date with all the characters at the time of the killings, there's a fair amount of jumping around that makes the story a bit hard to follow at times.  The ending was also a bit bizarre, or at least bizarre given the level of strangeness that's already established by this horror novel.  Still, I'm likely to go back and read Joe Hill's first novel, and would be very much open to reading future works.  If you're a fan of the horror/supernatural genre, Hill's a good pick.

Disclosure:
Obtained From: Library
Payment: Borrowed

06/30/2010

This is why I have such a hard time believing/diving into any "new" Microsoft offering...

Category Microsoft
So Microsoft kills off the KIN mobile device after devastatingly nonexistent sales.  And... it does this just two months after they release the device.  Can you imagine if you had decided to build an offering for the KIN or staked a significant amount of time and effort to support the device based on Microsoft's assurances that this would be the next greatest thing since sliced bread?

I find it hard to believe that a company the size of Microsoft could spend hundreds of millions of dollars (if not billions over the life of the project) on a device that reportedly only sold between 500 and 1000 units.  This is during the same time that Apple can't even keep up with the demand for iPhones and iPads.  Was their market research for the viability of the KIN *so* off-base as to give it a shelf-life of only two months?  Did they even *do* research?

It amazes me that a company, regardless of their size, could spend as much as they did on "Project Pink" and basically write the whole thing off as a loss without the market clobbering them.  And it's not like this is a first for MS when it comes to entertainment devices... Zune has underwhelmed the market.  Xbox has been a money pit with MS subsidizing the devices in hopes of establishing market share.  Quarterly reports would argue that they haven't been successful with that strategy unless they're playing by the rules of golf... lowest dollar total under break-even wins.

If I were on the board of directors for Microsoft, I'd be looking for some heads to roll, and there's just been one head at the top of all of these flops...  Perhaps Ballmer needs to step down to spend more time with his kids and family, and to pursue "other opportunities."

It's repeated episodes like the KIN that make me look at all new and shiny Microsoft offerings with a cynical glance, and let them play out for awhile before seeing if something's going to stick.  It's a given that betting on first-generation MS offerings is not a sure thing, and life is too short to follow a company around hoping to stake your career on something that for them seems to be nothing but a rounding error if they decide to write it off.

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Thomas "Duffbert" Duff

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