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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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Co-author of the book IBM Sametime 8.5.2 Administration Guide

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Book Review - Urawaza: Secret Everyday Tips and Tricks from Japan by Lisa Katayama

Category Book Review Lisa Katayama Urawaza: Secret Everyday Tips and Tricks from Japan
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You know how your grandmother always seemed to have some home remedy for curing a cold or fixing something around the house?  She used things that seemingly had nothing to do with the problem at hand, but with her magic touch, the problem disappeared.  In Japan, those secret tips and shortcuts are known as urawaza, and it's a common way to make use of things when resources are tight.  Lisa Katayama collects a number of these tips and shares them in her book Urawaza: Secret Everyday Tips and Tricks from Japan.  While not all the tips will be applicable to everyone (nor are many of them specifically Japanese), you'll likely find two or three things that will make the short book worth reading.

Healthy Hints for Sick Days; Amaze Your Friends; Beauty School 101; Household Hacks; Behind the Cupboard Door; Laundry Shortcuts; Street Smarts for the Great Outdoors; How To Discover Your Own Urawaza; Acknowledgments

Katayama starts off with a short history of urawaza, noting that it became necessary after World War 2 and the destruction of their country.  These tips and techniques allowed them to get the most use out of extremely limited resources, and they were passed along and shared when discovered.  The concept became mainstream in the late 1990's, and the advent of the Web made urawaza a hobby and fascination for many around the world.  

Each of Katayama's tips has its own page that lists the "how to" title, the dilemma that is faced, the solution to the problem, and a brief explanation as to why it works.  While it's nice to find a solution to an issue, I think I enjoyed the explanations more than anything else.  Those pieces change the solution from "magic" to common sense, and it also spurs you to think of how else that might be applied to other situations.

I think my favorite was how to get rid of beer foam.  She recommends putting a drop or two of olive oil into the foam, as the oil molecules have hydrophobic ends that attach to the bubble proteins to pull them out and reduce the foam.  The interesting part is that you can also touch your finger to the foam surface and get the same result.  And NOW I know why when I do that to my diet soda, the foam rapidly dissipates!

Obviously in a book of tips like this, you won't get a 100% personal applicability ratio.  You may also find that for whatever reason, the tip just doesn't work for you.  Be careful when you try something for the first time.  But for the handful of tips you try that *do* work, you'll get value from the time spent reading

Obtained From: Library
Payment: Borrowed


Book Review - New Image Frontiers: Defining the Future of Photography by Matthew Bamberg

Category Book Review Matthew Bamberg New Image Frontiers: Defining the Future of Photography
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Most of the books I read on photography tend towards the "how-to" end of the spectrum.  But Matthew Bamberg's latest book, New Image Frontiers: Defining the Future of Photography, steps away from how-to information and instead looks at where photography technology and thinking has been and where it's headed.  It's an excellent volume that gave me a greater appreciation of what's going on, as well as the power we have available both at the camera level and with the processing software.

Part 1 - Camera and Lenses: The Photographic Process; The Final Days of the Point-and-Shoot Digital Camera; Cameras and the Internet Find the Cell Phone; The dSLR Camera of the Future; Rangefinder and Medium Format Cameras; The Lens Today and Tomorrow; The Sensors
Part 2 - Photo Management: The Photo-Management Software Wars; GPS-Enabled Cameras; Creating Longer Lives for Photographs
Part 3 - Post-Processing Possibilities: Photoshop - Past, Present, and Future; HDR Simplified; Two Printing Worlds
Part 4 - Is Film Dead?: The Lomography Movement; Film, Film Cameras, and Film Photography; Creating Digital Film Grain - Making Digital Look Like Film
Part 5 - Photography Styles: The Rebirth of Pictorialism; Straight Photography from the f/64 Group to Today; Risque Portraiture, Outlandish Fashion - How Far Will Portrait and Fashion Photographers Go?; Text and Image - Yesterday and Tomorrow; Street Photography Secrets; Social Documentation - 1930s versus Today; From Abstract Expressionism to Conceptual Art
Part 6 - The Photography World at Work: The World as a Photography Studio; The Future of Gallery Photographic Art; The New Business of Microstock Photography; The Photography Media Explosion

Bamberg displays an extensive knowledge of photographic history and technology as he covers the march of progress for both the hardware and software aspects of the craft.  From daguerreotype pictures to mega-pixel images, from the original point-and-shoot cameras that weighed a lot and had very little resolution to cell phone cameras that rival full-featured digital SLRs, he provides a complete look at trends and potential outcomes that will affect what you end up using in the next few years.  He also does a nice job in dissecting the digital darkroom, the software that changes a normal photo into a stunning image.  What used to only be possible with expensive software is now available for free on photo sharing sites.  At the same time, the high-end imaging processing software continues to add new and more powerful techniques that were never before available.  

What I also found interesting was his take on how one trend in digital photography is to add back in the "film" look to pictures.  Image software on cell phone cameras often add grain and fading into pictures to give it an analog look.  Professional photographers are also leading trends that manipulate colors and exposures to look more retro.  Funny how all things old become new again...

If you're looking for a book on techniques or new skills, this isn't the book you want.  But if you want to take a step back and look at photography as a whole, considering what has been and what might be, this is the book for you.

Obtained From: Author
Payment: Free


Book Review - Altered Carbon by Richard K. Morgan

Category Book Review Richard K. Morgan Altered Carbon
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A friend and colleague recommended I pick up a copy of Altered Carbon by Richard K. Morgan.  As we talked over drinks, he described the book as a dark detective sci-fi novel, gritty in its dialogue and action.  After reading, I have to agree.  Altered Carbon ranks up there as one of my favorite sci-fi reads.  The settings and use of technology fascinated me, and I missed a number of the twists that took place throughout the story.

The general story revolves around one Takeshi Kovacs who is hired to determine whether a person's death was a murder or a suicide.  Who's he hired by? The victim... who is very much alive.  In the 25th century, a person's consciousness can be (and most often is) stored in a memory device implanted in the body.  When the physical body dies/quits working, a person can be reloaded into a new body in a procedure called "resleeving."  That makes for a strange definition of death, with penalties for crimes often set as a number of years where you are "offline."  

Kovacs is a trained soldier modified for warfare, but he ran afoul of the law and is doing time offline.  He is resleeved for this investigation with the promise that he will be given a new body if he accepts the case and solves the crime.  Otherwise, back to the stack.  Kovacs quickly finds that far too many people would prefer this case remain closed and ignored, including some people very close to the victim.  Of course, all the resistance has the opposite effect on Kovacs, and he's willing to put his own life on the line to uncover the truth... or at least whatever the truth should look like to make everything work out OK for himself.

It was probably a given that I would like this, as I normally enjoy sci-fi stories that have a strong cyber element to them.  This book certainly qualifies on that account.  There are countless examples of cyber-technology, artificial intelligence entities, body modifications, etc. The story is told in first-person from Kovacs' perspective, and his dark hard-edged personality sets the tone for everything that happens.  All the characters are complex and deep, and there are plenty of angles and edges that keeps the story moving.  

In short, Altered Carbon was a fascinating read, and an incredible effort for Morgan's first novel.  I'm pretty sure this won't be the last book of his that I end up reading...
Obtained From: Library
Payment: Borrowed


Book Review - Nick of Time by Tim Downs

Category Book Review Tim Downs Nick of Time
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Bug Man is back! Through the Amazon Vine review program, I was able to get a copy of Tim Downs' latest Bug Man novel, Nick of Time.  Nick Polchak, forensic entomologist and socially clueless individual, is about to get married (much to the surprise of everyone who knows him).  Alena Savard, a reclusive dog trainer whose strangeness is a perfect match for Polchak, is planning their wedding, but Polchak doesn't understand all the social norms and expectations for that event.  Furthermore, he needs to take a short trip just a week before his wedding... and knowing Nick, there's no guarantee that he'll make it back in time.

Polchak gets a letter from an old friend and colleague asking him to attend a monthly meeting of professionals that discuss and confer on cold cases.  Alena doesn't want him to go, and she feels like he's putting his work before her and their upcoming marriage.  Nick promises it'll just be a short overnight trip, and can't understand why everyone thinks it's a mistake for him to leave that close to the wedding.  When the colleague doesn't show up for the meeting, Nick drives to his house, only to discover evidence that the guy has been murdered.  Of course, that's enough for Nick to get totally absorbed into solving the mystery (and ignore contacting Alena), and that leaves Alena wondering if Nick is ready to be married, as well as his commitment to her.  The more he digs into the case, the more things are not as they appear.  What's worse is that Alena has tracked him down, and her involvement adds a twist to the situation that no one counted on...

I enjoy what Downs has created with the Polchak character.  He's a great mix of social ineptitude, dry humor, and sharp dialogue.  His whole world revolves around bugs, and he's aware that he doesn't understand what makes normal people tick.  Nick of Time departs a bit from the forensic plots of the past, and the bug angle doesn't figure in as much here.  It's more a story of Nick and Alena, and whether their relationship is ready to go to the next step.  In the overall scheme of a series, that angle is probably needed to build out the character a bit more.  But it did take a small edge off the normal "crime-solving via bugs" flavor of the plots, and I hope the next installment will go back to the normal plot directions.

Even though I may not have liked Nick of Time *quite* as much as prior installments of the Bug Man series, that's not to say I didn't enjoy it a lot.  Tim Downs is a favorite author of mine, and I'm looking forward to the next Bug Man installment.

Obtained From: Amazon Vine Review Program
Payment: Free


Book Review - The Profession by Steven Pressfield

Category Book Review Steven Pressfield The Profession
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I picked up Steven Pressfield's latest novel, The Profession, on Amazon Vine this month.  It sounded like a great premise... move 20 years into the future and look at war as a function of big business.  Buy your mercenary forces and leave the fighting to the "professionals."  The imagery and settings were excellent, but the storyline seemed to wander.  I was having problems with the "so what" aspect of the book...

The overall plot involves a major conflict in the Middle East (where else?) which has the whole world trying to figure out exactly what and who is driving the conflict and bankrolling Force Insertion, which is the top mercenary business on the globe.  A disgraced American general, James Sather, is running that show, and his overall goal isn't necessarily the same as the people and leaders who hired him.  As the conflict escalates and unfolds, it becomes apparent that Sather's actions are designed to put him into a position of ultimate power, erasing nearly 300 years of checks and balances.  The narrator of the story, Gent Gentilhomme, a soldier serving under the general, is the only person who is in a position to do something about it, and he's not entirely sure as to what the correct path should be.

From the perspective of the detail of the story, Pressfield is excellent.  The writing is gritty and hard, and it matches the type of action I'd expect to see in a war story.  It was as if I had been dropped into the middle of a conflict.  The storyline didn't seem to have that same action and momentum, however.  I was having a hard time trying to understand why things were happening and where the story was going.  I didn't have the feeling that I had to keep turning pages to find out what would happen next.    Even once the end game had played out, my general feeling was "meh"...

The Profession was an interesting read for imagining what war might be like in the future.  But as a story, it lacked the spark that made it a compelling novel.

Obtained From: Amazon Vine Review Program
Payment: Free


Book Review - Bombs Away!: The World War II Bombing Campaigns over Europe by John R. Bruning

Category Book Review John R. Bruning Bombs Away!: The World War II Bombing Campaigns over Europe
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After coming back from London last month and seeing the Imperial War Museum, this book at the library seemed like an interesting choice... Bombs Away!: The World War II Bombing Campaigns over Europe by John R. Bruning.  As I stood in a number of places in London, I tried to imagine what it must have been like, bombs raining out of the sky, day after day, night after night.  Bombs Away added more color to that imagining from the perspective of those who flew the planes and fought on a daily (and sometimes hourly) basis for their country and their lives.  

The Empty Sky; A Panacea for Generational Destruction; Theory into Practice; The Summer of the Few; Response in Kind; The Americans Arrive; Pointblank Begins; The Get Rich Quick Scheme; The Wheels Come Off; The Mortal Ones; The Hybrid Stallion; Relentless Pursuit - Big Week; Tipping Point; Destruction and Distraction; Clutching Straws; Judgments; Acknowledgments; Bibliographical Notes; Index

As a coffee table book (it's REALLY heavy!), it's interesting.  The mix of color and black and white photos during the span of World War II give you a sense of what it was like to be strapped into a bomber turret for hours on end, punctuated by periods of sheer terror when fighters and flak tried to remove you from the sky.  The photos from actual bombing runs are chilling, when you see the hellish destruction on the ground as well as the carnage in the sky, often ending in mission survival rates of less than half of those who took off just hours earlier.  

Where I thought the book really stood out was in drawing the comparison between World War I and II, and what strategists thought that an aerial war campaign would accomplish.  In WW I, trench warfare was the norm, and hundreds of thousands of soldiers were killed or maimed trying to take relatively small amounts of ground from the enemy.  The horror of that outcome, coupled with the advent of the airplane, led planners to believe that superiority in the air could bring a quick end to a war with limited casualties.  If one side could deliver a single blow to key industrial sites, the other side would be unable to continue and the war would be over.

Obviously, such is not the case.  Bruning makes the point that fighters and bombers became the "trenches" of WW II, and the body count was again incredibly high.  In addition, strategic bombing missions gave way to carpet bombing of military, industrial, and civilian areas, again leading to massive death and destruction on a scale never seen before.  Cities like Dresden and Hiroshima give testimony as to the failure of strategic bombing to save lives and bring war to a quick end.

Bombs Away is a sobering read that is a good complement to other books you might have read about World War II.  It evoked a strange mix of emotions... despair that we were able to destroy people and places so effectively, and amazement over how people will face nearly certain death in defense of life and liberty.  This is definitely not a book to read lightly...

Obtained From: Library
Payment: Borrowed


Book Review - Popular Mechanics 75 Tools Every Man Needs: And How to Use Them Like a Pro by James Kidd

Category Book Review James Kidd Popular Mechanics 75 Tools Every Man Needs: And How to Use Them Like a Pro
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If you're at all familiar with my track record in any project that uses tools, you'd think this particular book had been written just for me... Popular Mechanics 75 Tools Every Man Needs: And How to Use Them Like a Pro by James Kidd.  If I went out and purchased most of these tools (and got my kids to leave them alone), I'd be much better equipped to attempt some of my home repair projects.  I'd probably still screw them up, but I'd do so professionally!  :)

Forward; Before You Begin; Cutting; Tightening; Measuring & Marking; Multipurpose; Single Purpose; Index

Kidd devotes a two page spread to each tool in this spiral-bound book.  On one side of the page you have a picture of the tool so you know what to look for in the store.  On the other side is a description of the tool, what it's used for, why you need it, and what to look for in terms of quality when you buy it.  Some of the items are a given (as in even I already have one), such as a crosscut saw or adjustable wrenches.  But others are not something I'd ever considered buying, such as an impact driver or angle grinder.  But once I read how it can be used around the house and shop, I could definitely see how having the tool around could be quite handy.

I personally don't think that *every* tool in here is something that you absolutely need in your toolbox or shop.  For instance, I can't personally see me ever needing a pocket hole jib for "making quick, strong joints in wood."  If I have a need for that, I'm really in over my head.  But plumber's snake? Vice grips? Needle-nose pliers? Oh, yeah... *those* you do need.

I'll be copying down the list of the things I do need to get and have on-hand for basic repair jobs.  I know I'll never be a Bob Vila, but if I pay attention to the tools listed here, I should be in much better shape than I normally am...

Obtained From: Library
Payment: Borrowed


Book Review - The Unincorporated Man by Dani Kollin and Eytan Kollin

Category Book Review Dani Kollin Eytan Kollin The Unincorporated Man
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Based on a recommendation by a friend, I recently picked up The Unincorporated Man by Dani and Eytan Kollin at the library.  This is the type of sci-fi writing that I enjoy... take a person from the past (or present) and stick them into the future, forcing them to make sense of things that don't have a personal point of reference any longer.  The Unincorporated Man does that very well, especially given that it's the first novel by the Kollin brothers. It's not often that someone can write 500 pages the first time out and actually keep the reader's interest the whole way through.

300 years in the future, Justin Cord, a multibillionaire in his own time (our present), is found in the equivalent of a cryogenic capsule of his own making.  While reviving people from a cryogenic state is quite common, there's never been anyone revived from before the Great Collapse.  Obviously, this is a huge find for the group that discovers and revives him, and they want to keep him somewhat of a secret for as long as possible so they can control his future.  Cord, on the other hand, wakes up to a new societal norm that does not set well with him.  All individuals are now "incorporated", and various groups can own shares of a person.  5% is held by the government for "taxes", and 20% is held by the parents.  Based on other things the person wants, they sell portions of themselves (like to go to a better college).  The dream of most people is to own a majority of themselves, giving them more freedom to do what they want.  

Cord rejects this whole incorporation scheme, as it feels like slavery to him.  But slavery to one person is a goldmine to another, and various entities are trying to convince (or force) him to undergo incorporation.  But Cord refuses, thereby becoming a symbol to all those who want to throw off the shackles of ownership and be free.  This movement has the potential to disrupt everything that's happened in the last 300 years.  This places Cord in the crosshairs of many powerful people and corporations who either want him incorporated or dead... and they don't really care which one so long as the status quo is maintained.

The Kollin brothers do an excellent job in the details of this story.  As I put myself into Cord's shoes, I could understand how confused and different things would be.  I was also impressed with how they kept referring to the "Great Collapse" event, but didn't fully reveal what it was until I was towards the end of the book.  It set the expectation that there was some cataclysmic event that happened to change everything, but it kept me reading to find that one piece of the puzzle that would explain much of what society had become.  

I was a bit disappointed in the overall plot, as the storyline seemed to be secondary to the talk and explanations in many places.  Had the detail and subject not been so well done, I probably would have been someone bored in places.  But for a first novel, there's not much here that can be faulted.

I'd have no problems recommending this to anyone who likes near-future sci-fi novels.  The characters have depth, and there's plenty of material to keep you thinking and wondering...

Obtained From: Library
Payment: Borrowed


I'm giving away five paperback copies of Joe Finder's novel Vanished...

Category Joe Finder Vanished giveaway
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If you follow this blog and my reading habits, I don't think it'll surprise anyone that I'm a big fan of Joe Finder and his Nick Heller character.  I was fortunate to receive a box in the mail the other day with five(!) paperback copies of the novel Vanished, which is the first Nick Heller novel by Finder.  Publishers Weekly describes Vanished as follows:

Known for his stand-alones, bestseller Finder (Power Play) introduces Nick Heller, an elite corporate intelligence specialist and former Special Services badass, in this exciting series opener. After a frantic call from his 14-year-old nephew, Gabe, Heller returns home to Washington, D.C., from a job in California to find Gabe's mother in a coma and Gabe's stepfather, Roger, who is Heller's older brother, vanished without a trace. Though the brothers have been estranged since their father's much-publicized securities fraud conviction years earlier, Nick vows to protect Gabe and his mother and unravel the mystery of Roger's alleged abduction. The investigation leads him to some disturbing revelations about Roger, not the least of which involves a powerful—and dangerous—private military company. Written in staccato chapters that are emotionally supercharged and action packed, this thriller will more than satisfy adrenaline junkies and have them guessing until the very end.

I also did my own review on Vanished that you can find here.

I'll be giving away the five copies on Saturday morning, June 11th.  To enter, just leave a comment on this blog post with your name and email address.  The email address doesn't show up to anyone but me, and I won't be using it for anything other than to contact you for a mailing address.  I'll pick five random comments to choose the winners.

My thanks to Joe Finder and his team that made this giveaway possible, and good luck to everyone who enters!

UPDATE: Using random.org to generate random numbers between 1 and 14, the winners are:

Chris Martin
Sam Sawatzky
Dave Harris
Kitty Elsmore
Doni Molony

Thanks for playing, everyone... I'll be sending out emails to you to get your shipping address

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Thomas "Duffbert" Duff

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