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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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Co-author of the book IBM Lotus Sametime 8 Essentials: A User's Guide
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11/27/2011

Depression and suicide... you may never see it coming.

Category depression
Wales manager Gary Speed found dead - Former Wales international Robbie Savage wrote on Twitter: "He was upbeat on phone yesterday we were laughing together, talking football and dancing he was a great teammate and a great friend #RIP."

This news hit the sports pages today, another victim of suicide likely brought on by depression.  I had never heard of this guy before today, so it doesn't hit me at the level of someone close to me deciding to take his or her life.  But the part of the article I included above struck me, as it often seems to be part of far too many suicide stories.

When friends and acquaintances of a suicide victim are interviewed or questioned, often there's a statement along the lines of how happy they seemed just a few days (or even hours) before.  Sometimes it's known that the person is suffering through a tough situation.  It might be money issues, employment problems, or marital troubles.  They might have been on depression medications that had either become ineffective or were not creating the right chemical balance in the brain.  Perhaps they were on meds, but they considered themselves "cured" and stopped taking them, whether due to pride or unwanted side effects.  All of those effects and reasons could be in play, but from someone on the outside looking in, everything seemed fine... until it wasn't.

We're far too good at putting on masks... especially guys.  People ask "how are you", and you answer with the expected response... I'm fine.  But you're not.  The veneer and facade is thin, and it's barely concealing the sense of hopelessness, uselessness, and trapped desperation that you're feeling.  The problems have gotten so large, the obstacles so high, the only path to peace seems to be to end the game.

And meanwhile, we never see it coming.

Before you decide to take that final step of no return, call someone.  Talk to someone.  Call the Suicide Prevention Hotline (1-800-273-TALK) and see if there are options you haven't considered.  Talk to your doctor and have a frank discussion about what you're feeling.  Open up to a close friend and let them help.  Tell us you need help, but not in a way that makes it too late to do anything.

And for those looking in from the outside... Our "social" world makes it appear that we know someone better than we ever thought.  Instead of having three friends, you have 300.  You chat, email, and tweet them every day.  But do you take the time to get beyond the social pleasantries, to talk about something other than work, technology, football, or a dozen other topics that are "safe"?  When you type "how r u?" and they say "fine", do you take the time to challenge that if you sense something's not quite right?  Are you afraid to say "r u sure?", "really?", or "no you're not"?  Try it some time... you may literally save someone's life.

Don't hide behind "It's none of my business" or "I wouldn't know what to say".  Just be there.  That may be all they need.  Don't let a moment of embarrassment or awkwardness stop you from reaching out.  It's far better to deal with that than it is to deal with "if I had only..." the rest of your life.

11/26/2011

Book Review - 18 Minutes: Find Your Focus, Master Distraction, and Get the Right Things Done by Peter Bregman

Category Book Review Peter Bregman 18 Minutes: Find Your Focus Master Distraction and Get the Right Things Done
All too often, we seem to live our days on auto-pilot.  The hours, days, and months fly by, and we look back and wonder what we accomplished.  Worse, we might be living our days in reaction mode, responding to the loudest noises in an attempt to gain some sanity and get work done.  Of course, that never happens, as your agenda rarely is the same as those who want and need your time and resources.

Peter Bregman aims to help you get off that treadmill with his book 18 Minutes: Find Your Focus, Master Distraction, and Get the Right Things Done.  This isn't yet another "system" to follow to have a place for all things and to keep all things in their place.  Instead, it's a framework for developing a habit of taking 18 minutes throughout the day to plan out what you need to do, regroup on an hourly basis, and then review the results.  It made a lot of sense to me, and he solidified something I've been vaguely trying to do on my own.

Each chapter is small, only about three to five pages.  It's not hard to read his story or illustration that makes his point, understand how that idea links into the larger whole of your life, and decide what step or steps you need to take to make it happen.  As you will see in the table of contents listed at the end of this review, the book is structured into four parts.  The first part is a call to slow down, step off the highway, and start thinking about where you're going.  In parts two, three, and four, he drills further down into the actions and decisions that are needed to move you forward both at the day and life level.  By thinking what your year is about, then your day, then this particular moment, all your actions and decisions start to work towards a common goal to accomplish something significant, something beyond just keeping your head above water.  The 18 minute habit is key to this process.  You start the day by setting the tasks you want and need to accomplish (and then you schedule them).  Throughout the day on an hourly basis, you take one minute to step back, take a deep breath, and refocus on what you've done and what you're going to do in the next hour.  Finally, you end the day with a review of how everything went, what you learned, and whether there's any loose ends that need to be tied up before you mentally shut off for the night.  This ritual, once you do it often enough, becomes habit and leads you to take concrete steps throughout the day to control your direction (instead of the direction controlling you).

I liked 18 Minutes for a number of reasons.  Bregman is realistic in that he knows you probably won't be able to stick to a complicated system that requires a complete change in the way you do things.  You can start where you are with 18 Minutes, incorporating one or two items that resonate with you.  Once those are ingrained, work on a few more, all the while remembering to start the day with a plan, regroup throughout the day, and end the day with a review to learn what worked and what didn't.  For me, the immediate "to do" is to start the one minute regrouping action.  Instead of going from fire to fire, I'll start stepping back for one minute an hour to consciously reset and regroup so I can start the next hour with renewed focus.

18 Minutes is well worth reading.  Go ahead and put it down on your daily task list... schedule it in. :)  If you've read productivity books before, you've likely seen a number of these tips and such.  But seeing them woven together in this structure makes much more sense than just tossing out random tips, hoping one or two will stick.

Contents:
Part One - Pause - Hover Above Your World: Slowing the Spin - Reducing Your Forward Momentum; The Girl Who Stopped Alligator Man - The Incredible Power of a Brief Pause; The Day Andy Left Work Early - Stopping in Order to Speed Up; Frostbite in the Spring - Seeing the World as It Is, Not as You Expect It to Be; Multiple Personalities Are Not a Disorder - Expanding Your View of Yourself; Why We're Fascinated with Susan Boyle - Recognizing Your Own Potential; You Don't Have to Like Him - Where Do You Want to Land?;
Part Two - What Is This Year About? - Find Your Focus: What to Do When You Don't Know What to Do - Choosing Your Next Move at the Intersection; Reinvent the Game - Element One - Leverage Your Strengths; I'll Just Take the Shrimp - Element Two - Embrace Your Weakness; Headed Seats - Element Three - Assert Your Differences; The Pilot Who Saved 155 Passengers - Element Four Pursue Your Passion (Desire); Anyone Can Learn to Do a Handstand - Element Four - Pursue Your Passion (Persistence); A Recipe for Finding the Right Word - Element Four - Pursue Your Passion (Ease); What Matters to You? - Element Four - Pursue Your Passion (Meaning); I'm the Parent I HAve to Be - Avoiding Tunnel Vision; I've Missed More Than Nine Thousand Shots - Avoiding Surrender After Failure; When the Future Is Uncertain - Avoiding Paralysis; Maybe - Avoiding the Rush to Judgement; What Is This Year About? - Creating Your Annual Focus
Part Three - What Is This Day About? - Get the Right Things Done: Dude, What Happened - Planning Ahead; Bird by Bird - Deciding What to Do; Wrong Floor - Deciding What Not to Do; When Tomorrow? - Using Your Calendar; The Three-Day Rule - Getting Things Off Your To-Do List; Who Are You? - The Power of a Beep; It's Amazing What You Find When You Look - Evening Minutes - Reviewing and Learning; An 18-Minute Plan for Managing Your Day - Creating a Daily Ritual
Part Four - What Is This Moment About? - Mastering Distraction:
Mastering Your Initiative: Move the Table - Avoiding the Need for Motivation; Never Quit a Diet While Reading the Dessert Menu - We Need Less Motivation Than We Think; The Nintendo Wii Solution - Having Fun; The One-Two Punch - Getting Started and Keeping It Going; Am I the Kind of Person Who... - Telling the Right Story About Yourself; The Hornets Stung My Mind - Getting Out of Your Own Way
Mastering Your Boundaries: The Time Suck of Collaboration - Saying Yes Appropriately; But Daddy... - Saying No Convincingly; The Third Time - Knowing When to Say Something; We're Not Let Yet - Increating Transition Time; I Don't Want to Go to Ski Class - Decreasing Transition Time; We'll Regress. We'll Forget You. We'll Replace You - Managing the Tension of Relaxation
Mastering Yourself: Does Obama Wear a Pearl Necklace? - Creating Productive Distractions; Whould You Smoke Pot While You're Working? - Avoiding Switch-Tasking; It's Not the Skills We Actually Have That Matter - Getting Over Perfectionism; Why Won't This Work for You? - The Value of Getting Things Half Right; Don't Use a Basketball on a Football Field - Staying Flexible
Conclusion - Now What?: You Don't Have Ten Gold Behaviors - Choosing Your One Thing
Acknowledgments; Index; About the Author

Disclosure:
Obtained From: Publicist
Payment: Free

11/24/2011

Book Review - Executive by Leslie Wolfe

Category Book Review Leslie Wolfe Executive
A picture named M2

You own a high-tech company and you want to retire.  Nearly all your work is for the Defense Department, and the company is worth a fortune.  But every time a selling window opens up, it seems like a news leak or rumor gets out that causes the stock to dip badly, thereby postponing your plans for another three months.  Even worse, you suspect that these leaks and rumors are coming from your own management staff, and you're not sure who it might be.  

What do you do?

That's the driving force behind the plot line of the novel Executive by Leslie Wolfe.  It was offered to me by the publisher for a read and review.  For Ms. Wolfe's first effort, it's not bad.  The story kept moving, and I liked the mix of toxic leadership and technology gone bad.  While not perfect, it was a fun read.

The owner of the company comes to a group called The Agency, a private firm that offers assistance in corporate espionage for lack of a better term.  The Agency hires Alex Hoffman, an under-employed tech wizard who is looking for a change and a challenge. She responds to a somewhat bizarre online application, which leads to this new position.  While young, she's confident she can overcome her fears and lack of experience with a lot of hard work. Her first job is to get inside the tech company as the new director of IT so that she can start investigating the problems reported by the owner.  The company produces drones to carry out attacks for the military, but two have gone haywire and killed unintended targets.  She has to find out why the drones failed, if they might be part of the plot to drive the stock price down, and if so, who is behind it.  It's not an easy task, as most all the executives of the company (excluding the owner) are the worst possible mix of arrogance, abusive power, and psychotic leadership.  A single misstep could blow her cover story, preventing The Agency from solving the issue for the owner.  Worse yet, all the execs at the company are cold enough to simply make her disappear if they perceive her as a threat.

As I mentioned, it was a fun read in that the tension keeps building at a constant pace throughout the book, and a few twists occur along the way to keep things interesting.  I'm not sure how the book was edited, and that might be the cause of the things that bothered me somewhat as I was reading.  The characters who made up The Agency didn't get much background.  Alex was the only one who was fully formed, and that's because she was the person in the middle of the action.  The leaders were over-the-top cruel and evil, and it's hard to believe that anyone reporting to them would hang around for long.  There were some gaps in the story that appeared to be missing simply because it would be too hard to explain.  For instance, she has to get hired by the tech firm and convince them that she has the experience and knowledge to do the job.  The wife of the head of The Agency is apparently a great resume writer, and she's going to help Alex prepare to apply and interview.  Next thing we know, she's starting the job.  Nothing happens in between, which I found odd.  Finally, there was a bit of inconsistency in the style of dialogue.  Sometimes the person would be using contractions (can't, I've, etc.), but other times in similar situations, it's "cannot", "I have", and so forth.  Overall the dialogue was appropriate, which was nice.  The inconsistency there was minor, but it's one of the things I tend to notice.

I personally hope that Ms. Wolfe keeps writing, as she tells a good story.  I would love to read more of her work, and I hope Executive is not her first *and* last novel.  Criticism aside, it was good entertainment, and there's room for this character set to continue on and grow with future cases.

Disclosure:
Obtained From: Publisher
Payment: Free

11/22/2011

A way to say "thank you" to a blogger via Amazon purchases...

Category Everything Else
As you've possibly noticed, occasionally I review a book or two here on my blog.  

In each review, there's a link back to Amazon where the book is listed.  And if you look at the URL format, you'll see the string "duffbertsrand-20" at the end.  Chris Miller has (I think) a string of "idonotes-20" at the end.  So what's that mean, and why do I do that?

Well, I'm enrolled in the Amazon Associate program.  It's a free referral program run by Amazon whereby I get a small commission on any sale from their site if the purchase was made after clicking through one of my links.  The most common type of purchase would be where you see a review that looks interesting, you click the link, and you decide to purchase the book.  In addition to that, anything else you buy during that session also earns a commission.  You can even click through one of my links, immediately go to some other item on Amazon to buy it, and I *still* get a commission.

There are a couple different fee structures, but the most common one is called the Performance Structure.  Each quarter, you get a percentage of the total sales based on the number of items purchased.  If I drive 1 to 6 sales for the quarter, I get 4% of the purchase price.  If the number goes up to between 6 and 20, the percentage increases on all items to 6%.  Then the ranges start getting larger, and the percentage jumps get smaller.  I'm happy if I get over 20 items for the month and get up to 6.5%.

The associate site allows you to track what items have been purchased, and it's always fun to check out what the account might hold for you each day.  I can't track *who* purchased any particular item (unless you tell me you did it), but I can see what was purchased.  For instance, a fellow blogger asked me about my Amazon links because he wanted to say thanks for some help I gave him.  He clicked through a link to a particular book he wanted to buy, and also bought an iPod while there.  *That* was a nice thank you!    Recently, someone bought three copies of a particular book, which I assume they are giving to fellow staff members.  Granted, not a lot of money, but it all adds up.

In my case, we're not talking thousands of dollars each quarter.  Nor hundreds...  $50 would be good...    I won't be quitting my day job any time soon.

So...  If you're out on a web site that you enjoy and they have a link to something on Amazon, there's a good chance they're part of the associate program.  Instead of going to Amazon to buy whatever via the normal Amazon link, use their site link to start your session.  It won't cost you anything extra, and it's an easy way to express appreciation for their work.

(P.S. - Don't read that last paragraph as a plea to use my links to buy stuff from Amazon.  I was really trying to speak in the general sense of showing appreciation.  But don't let me stop you, either....)

11/20/2011

Book Review - We Are All Weird by Seth Godin

Category Book Review Seth Godin We Are All Weird
A picture named M2

I recently had the chance to read Seth Godin's latest work We Are All Weird, a small book on his view that mass marketing and mass production is dead.  The replacement is "markets of one", small communities of people who are focused and passionate about things that don't fall in the center of the bell curve.  The flattening of that curve means that companies have to give up the one-size-fits-all approach to their products, as normal is an illusion.

Contents:
Introduction - The Pregnant Elephant; Part 1 - Capitalism, Industry and the Power of Mass - And Its Inevitable Decline; Part 2 - The Four Forces For Weird; Part 3 - The Gradual and Inexorable Spread of the Bell Curve; Postscript - Onward Toward Tribes

As with many of Godin's books, he takes one of his core messages that you find in his various writings (such as blogs and articles) and expands on it.  In Weird, he shows how the Internet has allowed everyone to publish content of interest to them. This in turn allows others with the same interest to find each other and create their own mini-tribes surrounding that shared interest.  Add to that his definition of rich (you have time, enough money to meet your needs, and confidence), and you have many more people who have choice, the ability to go beyond survival and follow their own interests. These interests are increasingly diverging from the masses, making people who were once considered "weird" become part of a new normalcy with others of the same bent.  The ability to reach and satisfy these "weird" groups is where success lies.  

Most of Godin's books tend to hit me more at an emotional rather than logical level.  To say that mass marketing and mass production is dead seems to be more of an overstatement. However, it is true that outlier groups have more clout and demand more attention than they have in the past.  As such, it's a good idea to not expect a single approach to marketing and products to have the same success in the past.  Even though the book is only 97 pages, it feels like the message of We Are All Weird is something more suited to a longer article than a bound book.  But Seth certainly doesn't follow normal convention, and he's willing to try things (including publishing) that don't conform to what's been done in the past.  Godin's message is one that's worth reading and considering, especially if you want to try and stay ahead of the curve.  Somewhere between "weird" and "business as usual" is where your future lies, and figuring out the location of that point for your business will dictate success and failure.

Disclosure:
Obtained From: Amazon
Payment: Purchase

11/20/2011

Book Review - The Power of foursquare: 7 Innovative Ways to Get Your Customers to Check In Wherever They Are by Carmine Gallo

Category Book Review Carmine Gallo The Power of foursquare: 7 Innovative Ways to Get Your Customers to Check In Wherever They Are
A picture named M2

Most of the books and information I've read about the phenomenon that is foursquare centers on how and why people should use it.  What I haven't seen much on is how and why a business should use foursquare as an integral part of their customer relationships.  That gap is now eliminated with Carmine Gallo's new book The Power of foursquare: 7 Innovative Ways to Get Your Customers to Check In Wherever They Are.  He makes a compelling argument as to why a business can't afford to ignore foursquare, complete with examples and case studies on companies that see a direct bottom-line result.  Add in the fact that foursquare costs them nothing to use, and it's a no-brainer.

Contents:
Introduction - What's All the Fuss About?; Connect Your Brand; Connection Superstars; Harness New Fans; Newbie Ringleaders; Engage Your Followers; Super Users; Create Rewards; Super Mayors; Knock Out the Competition; Swarm Masters; Incentivize Your Customers; Local heroes; Never Stop Entertaining; Crunked Kings; 10 Pitfalls to Avoid; Foursquare Founders in Their Own Words; Conclusion - Your Turn to Check In; Notes; Index

Using the CHECKIN acronym (Connect, Harness; Engage; Create; Knock; Incentivize; Never) as found in the chapter headings, Gallo builds the case for the value of foursquare to any business, both large and small.  Using a large number of examples from an array of various sized businesses, he shows how reaching people based on their current location and choices, coupled with the possibility of receiving rewards or special recognition, turns a normal customer interaction into a "wow" experience that builds both loyalty and buzz. Even better, using foursquare is completely free! For instance, the Corcoran Group, a real estate firm in New York, uses foursquare to leave tips and inside information on foursquare that are pushed to people who follow their company on their mobile devices.  These location-specific tips are pushed to the individual when they check in somewhere.  No, it doesn't directly sell a house to a customer.  What it does do is establish them as an expert in knowledge about the area, which *does* translate into interest and sales when someone goes to buy a house.  This type of highly focused information works for them 24/7, and costs them nothing other than the time and effort to create the tips.

Probably one of my favorite examples is the AJ Bombers restaurant in Milwaukee, Wisconsin.  In 2008, the place was close to going under due to the economy and a lack of business.  Joe Sorge, the owner, knew he had to do something drastic if he wanted to save the restaurant, but he had no budget for advertising.  He decided to start using the social network tools of Twitter and Facebook to market to a tech-savvy crowd that caters to their online connectiveness.  As AJ Bombers built up followers and catered to that group, things started to turn around.  But when Sorge put foursquare into the mix, things exploded.  Users started leaving tips for others, which lead to more people trying the restaurant. Sorge organized events around foursquare, such as Swarm parties so foursquare users could earn the Swarm badge. He had an "I'm On A Boat" party for people to unlock that badge (no, they're not on a river, and yes, it's possible). Add in special menus for the Mayor of AJ Bombers, winning a burger competition from another restaurant that had owned the title for 10 years, and wireless access points named "don't forget to check in on foursquare", and the place has been transformed into a must-visit location. They even have investors who want to take the place national.  He owes most of his success to social media, and the vast majority of that is due to foursquare.

I had dropped my foursquare account a while back as I was wondering if it was really worth it. While this isn't a book targeted at the users of foursquare, it did cause me to start back up again if nothing more than to study how different companies are using the site to build their customer relationships.  Either way, The Power of foursquare should be high on the reading list of anyone who is looking to connect with their current customer base and go beyond normal "advertising."  

Disclosure:
Obtained From: Publisher
Payment: Free

11/16/2011

Book #2 is born! The IBM Sametime 8.5.2 Administration Guide is now available for purchase...

Category IBM Sametime 8.5.2 Administration Guide Thomas Duff Marie L. Scott Gabriella Davis
I'm thrilled to say that the last 12 months of work has culminated in the release of our latest book: IBM Sametime 8.5.2 Administration Guide.

A picture named M2

The ebook and paper versions are available on the Packt site, and I'm sure Amazon will show it as available very shortly.

Many thanks to my co-authors Marie Scott and Gab Davis, along with all of our reviewers and others who contributed their words, eyes, ears, and encouragement along the way.

Now go buy one! :)

And please... If you have the opportunity to do so, write a review and post it to Amazon along with a rating.  It definitely helps people decide whether to buy the book or not.

11/13/2011

Book Review - Heat Wave by Richard Castle

Category Book Review Richard Castle Heat Wave
A picture named M2

After reading Naked Heat, the novel tie-in for the TV series Castle, I found that whoever writes them does a pretty good job.  To pick up the thread from the start, I got a copy of Heat Wave from the library.  It's not a long read, and it feels like an episode of Castle (which I'm sure it's supposed to).  But like Naked Heat, it's good for what it is... a few hours of escape and mind candy.

Heat and her team (along with Rook who is researching his next article) get tagged for a case involving a wealthy businessman who takes a header from his 6th floor apartment.  When they head up to the apartment to interview the trophy wife, they find out that he has a fortune in art (no taste, mind you... but a lot of money) adorning the walls.  They also find out that his business enterprise is a sham, literally bankrupt from his gambling and spending habits.  Heat's digging lands her on someone's bad side, as she encounters a killer in her apartment who is ready to shut her up permanently. But she gets that "ironed" out (yes, that's a pun) and starts to pull the threads that will unravel the truth.  

Heat Wave sets the scene for the romantic chemistry between Heat and Rook.  Coming into the series at the second book, I had to assume that the relationship between the two had started here.  This book wasn't critical to understanding the second book in the series, but it would have been nice to have had read this one first.  Another reason why it was easy enough to track the action is that it's impossible to think of the characters as anybody other than who they are in the actual TV series.  There's a reason it reads like an episode of Castle... it basically is.

Heat Wave isn't something that's going to win literary awards or be an ageless classic.  It's simply a fun read that works well for what it is.  Just sit back and enjoy it.

Disclosure:
Obtained From: Library
Payment: Borrowed

11/12/2011

Book Review - New York To Dallas by J. D. Robb

Category Book Review J. D. Robb New York To Dallas
A picture named M2

Happy days once again! Nora Roberts delivers another J. D. Robb novel in the In Death series.  New York to Dallas may be a slight deviation from the normal titles that contain the phrase "In Death", but she doesn't deviate from the chemistry that makes me enjoy this series so much.  In fact, this installment (is this really the 33rd?) is more intense than normal, as Dallas is forced to confront her inner demons that she thought had been buried away.

Dallas catches a case set up especially for her.  As a rookie, she put a sadistic kidnapper and killer, Isaac McQueen, behind bars with a dramatic confrontation in his apartment torture chamber.  McQueen should have been locked away for life, but he manages to escape and hook up with a partner to renew his sick fantasies.  But this time there's a twist... His first goal is to get his hands on Dallas so he can extort money from Roarke and subject her to a painful, drawn-out death.  After kidnapping one of his surviving victims from the past, he calls Eve out, forcing her to travel to Dallas Texas in order to prevent another death.  Now on his turf, he starts working towards the final confrontation.  Normally this wouldn't be different than any other case, except Dallas is the city where Eve killed her abusive father when she was only eight.  Her nightmares resurface, and every new twist in the case peels back yet another layer of pain that she thought she had successfully buried.

This episode, while having plenty of crime action, dives more deeply into Eve's abusive past as well as the relationship between her and Roarke.  Roarke's one of the few people who knows and feels her pain, and he does all he can to shield her.  Yet she's strong-willed and stubborn, and willing to risk everything to put McQueen back behind bars.  Roarke's at a complete loss on how to help her, and all his money and power is useless when it comes to protecting the one thing he lives for... Dallas.

As with most In Death novels, this one was read in just a couple of days.  I got more absorbed than normal with this one, and that's saying something given how I usually plow through a J. D. Robb novel.  This is one of the best in the series, and it amazes me that Roberts can continue a series this long and still have it be fresh and interesting.  And I have no doubt that as I write these words, she's probably getting close to finishing the next one... :)

Disclosure:
Obtained From: Library
Payment: Borrowed

11/12/2011

Book Review - The Extraordinary Catalog of Peculiar Inventions: The Curious World of the Demoulin Brothers and Their Fraternal Lodge Prank Machines - from Human Centipedes and Revolving Goats to Electric Carpets and Smoking Camels by Julia Suits

Category Book Review Julia Suits The Extraordinary Catalog of Peculiar Inventions: The Curious World of the Demoulin Brothers and Their Fraternal Lodge Prank Machines - from Human Centipedes and Revolving Goats to Electric Carpets and Smoking Camels
A picture named M2

Those wacky lodge brothers!

Fraternal lodges are no longer a prevalent part of American society, but around the turn of the century they used to be a normal fixture in communities.  Fraternities such as Freemasonry, the Independent Order of Odd Fellows, and the Woodmen of the World existed to allow members to associate, interact, and take care of each other.  But to become a member, you normally had to undergo some type of initiation ceremony.  These rites were often designed to amuse existing members and test the initiate.  The Demoulin Brothers catered to these secret societies, and made some incredibly complex and funny devices for these ceremonies.  Julia Suits takes us back to those times in her book  The Extraordinary Catalog of Peculiar Inventions: The Curious World of the Demoulin Brothers and Their Fraternal Lodge Prank Machines - from Human Centipedes and Revolving Goats to Electric Carpets and Smoking Camels.  It's a fascinating look at the past and what used to pass for entertainment.

Contents:
Introduction; The Brothers DeMoulin - Where, When, How They Wert; Fraternalism 101 - Orders, Lodges, Members; Fun Work - The Side-Degree; Factory Goats - Unclassified Species from the Genus Ca-a-a-a-apra; See You in Court! - Botched Initiations and the Lens of the Law; Zzzzzt! - The Shockers; Bang! Crash! Splat! The Mechanicals; Wardrobe! The Wearables; References; Image and Photo Credits; Catalog Index

Due to the secretive nature of these rituals, it's not surprising that I've never heard of the Demoulin Brothers and what they made.  Suits points out that these catalogs were targeted specifically at the fraternal societies, so the general public generally never saw these devices.  The book includes many page reproductions from the original catalogs, along with product descriptions and testimonials from "satisfied" buyers.  Suits also provides sidebars and explanations that shed light on certain things that might not be understood 100+ years after the fact.  For instance, there's a large number of "electric" devices and pranks shown in the catalog. We look at them now and wonder what the big deal was. But back then, only 10% of the houses used electricity in any appreciable way.  Therefore, there was still a fascination with electricity, and pranks using it had a novelty effect that most people had never experienced.

What I found most interesting is how the book documents the changes in how we deal with different ethnic groups.  The masks and costumes all play to the stereotyped images of North American Indians, blacks, Jewish men, the Irish, and many others.  At that time, none of these caricatures would have been given a second thought.  Now you'd face lawsuits and media condemnation.  Needless to say, times have changed...

The Extraordinary Catalog of Peculiar Inventions is a unique (and sometimes bizarre) look into our past that will have you smiling, laughing, and/or shaking your head in amazement.  You'll also likely think twice before someone mentions undergoing any sort of initiation. :)

Disclosure:
Obtained From: Publisher
Payment: Free

11/06/2011

Product Review - AmazonBasics Stylus

Category Product Review AmazonBasics Stylus
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The major complaint I have with my iPad (and "major" is a relative term, as I love my iPad) is the lack of a decent stylus. What I want is something with a pointed end so I can easily write in drawing applications without making it look like I'm using crayons with two inch tips.  The Amazon Vine review program recently had the AmazonBasics Stylus as one of their items, so I decided to give it a chance.  To be honest, I really didn't expect much, as the end looks like a rounded eraser. It looked like I was going to get yet another "crayon" to play with.  Surprisingly, it works far better than I expected.  Add in the low price, and this is may be the best stylus I'll end up using on a regular basis.

At four inches and less than three ounces, it's light and fits well in my admittedly small hands.  The working end of the stylus looks and feels like a foam tip that has plenty of give when you push on it.  If I had to press down hard, it'd be a total flop.  But the iPad picks up the contact with a fairly light touch, so you can get some fine lines in your drawing applications.  The stylus draws letters that connect well without being large line blobs, so I have notes that are actually legible and end up having more than four words per line.  With a little more practice, I think I will be able to make this behave fairly close to how paper and pen behave.  The stylus also works well as a regular pointer, so you can use it to select options and type words if you care to.  It'd be nice if it had a clip or something instead of a string loop on the end that doesn't appear to hook onto anything I have in my iPad case.  But if that's the worst I can say about this item, I'm more than happy.

If you're hunting for a stylus and you're tired of spending too much money for things that don't live up to expectations, give the AmazonBasics Stylus a try.  As with all items like this, it's hard to say with any degree of certainty whether you'll end up liking it as much as the reviewer.  But all things considered, it's worth putting this stylus in your "should try" list.

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

11/06/2011

Book Review - The Psychopath Test: A Journey Through the Madness Industry by Jon Ronson

Category Book Review Jon Ronson The Psychopath Test: A Journey Through the Madness Industry
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I picked up The Psychopath Test: A Journey Through the Madness Industry by Jon Ronson at the library a short time back.  What I was hoping for was a look into the history of psychopathy and how it affects people in today's society.  I got a bit of that, but the material bounced around from topic to topic.  I also didn't care for the role of the author in the narrative.  

Contents:
The Missing Part of the Puzzle Revealed; The Man Who Faked Madness; Psychopaths Dream in Black-and-White; The Psychopath Test; Toto; Night of the Living Dead; The Right Sort of Madness; The Madness of David Shayler; Aiming a Bit High; The Avoidable Death of Rebecca Riley; Good Luck; Notes; Sources; Bibliography; Acknowledgments

Ronson's journey begins with the mystery of a book sent to a neurologist, one that is obviously handmade with mysterious drawings and puzzling page layouts.  There's a note on the envelope that says the sender will tell the recipient more when he returns, but there's no mention of who sent the book and who is supposed to return.  Making it even more confusing, the same packet was sent to a number of academics throughout the world.  None were able to solve the mystery, but Ronson's name came up as someone who might be able to dig out some answers.  So with that as the starting point, Ronson sets out to visit and interview individuals who range from slightly off-beat to off-the-deep-end strange.  Along the way, he runs across the list of questions that are used to make a diagnosis of someone as a psychopath.  He quickly discovers that there's a little psychopath in everyone.  Even worse, someone trying to prove they are not psychopathic is additional proof that they are...

The stories range from strange/sad to completely bizarre.  One individual named Tony faked his way into a mental institution to avoid a prison sentence.  But instead of ending up in a hospital psychiatric ward, he ended up in an institution that housed some of the worst criminally insane people in the system.  Tony confessed to his psychiatrist what he had done, but by then it was too late. His diagnosis of psychopathy was used to explain why he was "confessing" to something to avoid punishment.  No matter what he did, it was used to confirm the original diagnosis.  If he had gotten the maximum sentence for the original crime, he'd have done around eight years.  He ended up spending well over twelve years trying to get out of the institutions he faked his way into.

On the other hand, some people *are* true psychopaths in every clinical and rational sense of the word.  Emmanuel "Toto" Constant was the leader of a paramilitary group in Haiti in the 90's, one that committed horrible atrocities.  When Aristide regained power, Constant fled to the US to avoid death at the hands of the new regime.  The US government arrested him, but suddenly granted his freedom when he claimed that it was the CIA that was backing his group, and that he'd tell all he knew to the media.  The condition of his release included that he would live in his mother's apartment in Queens and never leave the borough.  Ronson's observations during his interview along with the history of his reign of terror in Haiti leave no doubt he was a psychopath.

Throughout the book, Ronson keeps coming back to the twenty item checklist named The Psychopathy Test, and how it's used to spot and judge whether someone's a psychopath.  He feels that by knowing these indicators, he's gained the ability to look at someone and figure out whether the person is normal or psychotic.  But when you look at how many behaviors the industry tries to get approved as formal diagnoses and conditions, you realize that you can interpret someone's actions to mean just about anything you want them to mean.  As such, you end up questioning whether anyone is "normal" or whether we're all just living in various stages of mental illness.

I think this could have been a very good book given the subject matter.  But the book seems to be more about Ronson's journey than a comprehensive look at the subject.  I also found myself getting irritated with his tendency to worry about what other people were thinking of him and whether people were going to like him or not.  I kept thinking that he should either grow a pair or find another line of work.  Yeah, that's harsh, but the underlying attitude really didn't set well.  Coupled with the way the story seemed to bounce around, I struggled to hear and follow his message without getting sidetracked by style.

The things that made The Psychopath Test difficult for me to get into may not bother someone else, and they might find the style perfect to telling Ronson's story.  Unfortunately, what I thought I'd get and what I ended up with were separated by too much of a gap.

Disclosure:
Obtained From: Library
Payment: Borrowed

11/06/2011

Product Review - Philips DLP2277 Attachable Battery Pack and Charging Base for iPhone and iPod

Category Product Review Philips DLP2277 Attachable Battery Pack and Charging Base for iPhone and iPod
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Generally speaking, I don't have a problem getting through the day with the battery power on my iPhone.  However, if I'm traveling, it's a bit more dicey.  Through the Amazon Vine review program, I got the Philips DLP2277 Attachable Battery Pack and Charging Base for iPhone and iPod to see if it would fill that gap when I'm on the road.  I'm happy to say it works very well, and it has some nice ease-of-use benefits when charging your battery and iPhone.

The charger is a flat plate with contacts that allow you to quickly drop the battery unit onto it and start the charging process.  It even allows you to leave your iPhone attached to the battery, and both devices will get charged.  The suction cups on the front of the battery unit secure it to the back of your iPhone, and it definitely stays put.  The molded part of the battery that plugs into the phone is solid, and I've not seen it come off or put any stress on the connection.  

The two things I don't like about it involve color and size.  The review unit I received is white.  It was the only color available for review, and I know it doesn't look very good on the back of a black iPhone.  But that's not the problem of the manufacturer, as I'm the one that decided to accept a white unit.  The other issue is the size of the iPhone and battery when connected.  If you decide to leave the battery unit attached, the front-to-back width of the combined device doubles.  At that point, it's no longer something that conveniently fits in your pocket.  As such, I only attach the battery when I actually need to, and it comes off when I'm done.  Couple the hassle of taking it on and off along with having to keep the battery part somewhere close so you can get to it quickly, and part of the enjoyment of the unit starts to fade.

The Phillips DLP2277 Battery Pack is a good device, does the job, and makes it easy to keep everything charged up.  The size of the battery when attached to the iPhone is less than ideal, but I'm not sure *any* extra battery would do any better.  As far as external battery extenders go, this one does the job better than most.

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

11/05/2011

Book Review - Mindfire: Big Ideas for Curious Minds by Scott Berkun

Category Book Review Scott Berkun Mindfire: Big Ideas for Curious Minds
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I've been a fan of Scott Berkun and his writing for some time.  I enjoy his books (especially Confessions of a Public Speaker), but I'm somewhat of a relative newcomer to his blog postings (surprising considering how many blogs I follow and read).  His latest book, Mindfire: Big Ideas for Curious Minds, is a compilation of 30 of his essays and postings from the last decade.  I'm normally a bit hesitant to read and review collections like these, as I've been disappointed in the past with material that didn't age well or sounded too repetitious when the time gaps are eliminated.  Fortunately, Mindfire avoids all these problems, and is one of the best books I've read this year.  I may not agree with Scott on every post, but I *do* end up being forced to think and examine my views in ways I normally don't.  

Contents:
Warning; Preface
Part 1 - Gasoline: The cult of busy; Wants vs. Beliefs; How to be a free thinker; How to detect bullshit; Should you be Popular or Good?; There are two kinds of people - complexifiers and simplifiers; Are you indifferent?; Does transparency matter?; How I found my passion; How to be passionate
Part 2 - Sparks: On God and Integrity; Hating vs Loving; The surprise inspiration of death; Your quota of worry and how to shrink it; How to make a difference; Why you must lead or follow; Why the world is a mess - a theory; The size of ideas; Book Smarts vs. Street Smarts; Why does faith matter?; Can you be great, with grace?
Part 3 - Fire: How to give and receive criticism; How to learn from your mistakes; How to keep your mouth shut; Creative thinking hacks; Dr. Seuss and wicked constraints; Why smart people defend bad ideas; Why you are not an artist; How to convince anyone of anything; Attention and Sex; A strawman for everything
Epilogue; How to Help This Book in 60 Seconds; Notes and References on the Essays; Acknowledgments; Index; Colophon

As I was reading through Mindfire, I kept running across gems that I wanted to savor and remember.  In "The cult of busy", Scott points out (correctly) that appearing less busy by doing a job in one hour is better than taking five hours to do the same job.  Being busier does not mean you're more effective.  Additionally, "saving time" is often useless if it's just spent watching TV.  What are you really doing with the time you "save"?  The essay that stopped me cold was "How to make a difference."  How often do I neglect to tell someone I appreciate their work? If I get great service somewhere, do I just pay the bill and leave, or do I take a few extra moments to sincerely tell the person that I appreciate what they did? Offering praise to someone doesn't diminish me in any way, so why would I hoard it or not say anything?  I need to thank people more for what they do, whether it's writing books I enjoy or doing things that make me feel good.

Scott writes with humor and blunt honesty, making sure that he honors his readers by putting all he can into his material.  That commitment comes through clearly in his writing.  I can imagine sitting across from him with a beer and talking about these same topics, and getting the same level of passion he puts into his writing.  Of course, you could get all this content by digging back through all his blog postings, but getting this compilation in book form is perfect for distilling down the topics he feels deserve attention, as well as being able to take a highlighter and pen to jot notes in the margins.  I'm guessing you'll end up doing a lot of that...

Mindfire is an excellent book that will challenge and change you.  It's time and money well spent, both in terms of supporting a great writer as well as investing in yourself.

Disclosure:
Obtained From: Author
Payment: Free

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