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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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11/30/2012

Book Review - Victory at Yorktown by Newt Gingrich and William R. Forstchen

Category Book Review Newt Gingrich William R. Forstchen Victory at Yorktown
Victory at Yorktown: A Novel

I recently received a copy of the final installment in Newt Gingrich and William R. Forstchen's Revolutionary War trilogy... Victory at Yorktown.  While I'll never end up reading any of Gingrich's non-fiction material (due to philosophical differences), I do enjoy his historical novels when he teams up with Forstchen.  Having said that, I think that Victory at Yorktown is the weakest of the Revolutionary War trilogy, as the rawness of the wartime conditions was missing.  It was more focused on strategy, individuals, and loyalties, and I didn't get drawn in as much as I have with earlier works.

From the perspective of adding flesh to a historical event, Victory at Yorktown does that.  Gingrich and Forstchen put color and depth into an event that often only occupies a few paragraphs (if that) in history books.  For those of us who aren't overly adept at weaving our own imaginary motion pictures of events, Victory makes things more "real."  But it doesn't measure up to what they accomplished with the previous installment, Valley Forge.  Valley Forge had me feeling the cold, the hunger, and the desperation of the troops and leaders as they fought for their independence.  Soldiers sacrificed absolutely everything for a cause, and did so in conditions that were deplorable.  Much of that is absent in Victory at Yorktown, and it turns the novel into a story based more on strategy and chance rather than one that captures the spirit of freedom.

Victory at Yorktown isn't a bad novel.  If I had read it as a stand-alone book, I probably would have thought it was pretty good.  But the bar was set quite high with Valley Forge, and I had a hard time avoiding the comparison.  

Now it's a matter of waiting to see what Gingrich and Forstchen tackle next...

Disclosure:
Obtained From: Publisher
Payment: Free

11/30/2012

Book Review - Loss of Control by Scott Good

Category Book Review Scott Good Loss of Control
Loss of Control (Volume 1)

Occasionally I get the chance to read a novel from someone I've been associated with over the years in my "day job" career.  It's interesting to me to see how they mesh their interests and passions into a story, and it's like an Easter egg hunt to see if you can find the character pieces that are fragments of their real life.  I recently had that pleasure with Scott Good's first novel, Loss of Control.  This was an enjoyable read with a number of "I know that person/event/location" moments for me.

The story in Loss of Control revolves around auto racing.  Jake Berwyn races cars recreationally, and the story opens with him racing hard against his best friend, David Reed.  A pre-race argument has Jake's emotions running hot, and the two are slicing and dicing for the lead on the final lap.  David appears to block, but loses control of his car and ends up crashing. Jake's elation at David's mistake turns to horror when the car erupts into a fireball and kills his friend.  Jake becomes an emotional wreck, thinking that their heated argument led to the crash.  But the discovery of a bolt from the wreckage indicates that sabotage may be the actual cause behind David's death, and Jake sets out to find the real truth behind what happened on that last lap...

As you might expect, there is a *lot* of detail about auto racing in Loss of Control.  Scott writes about what he knows, and he knows racing.  Racing geeks will likely love this novel.  He also mixes in plenty of technology, as that's his day job.  As a technology geek, I enjoyed that part also.  From an "insider" perspective, I also had to laugh at Ding, Jake's employee.  "Julian Newberry" actually exists, and I could picture the interactions between the two in perfect clarity.  That's not something that the average reader would notice or care about, but it added a lot to the reading experience for me.

I know that Loss of Control was something that took Scott years of writing to get into its final form.  I hope that it's not a one-time occurrence, and that he's already at work on book #2.  A good job for a first-time author, and I would welcome the chance to visit the adventures of Jake Berwyn once again.

Disclosure:
Obtained From: Author
Payment: Free

11/30/2012

Book Review - The Yellow Birds by Kevin Powers

Category Book Review Kevin Powers The Yellow Birds
The Yellow Birds: A Novel

A good friend pointed me towards The Yellow Birds by Kevin Powers.  Set between 2003 and 2009 during the Iraq war, the novel tells the story of a soldier's mental and emotional descent into hell, both during the war and in his post-war existence.  It's a brutal look at one's loss of humanity and stability, and how the unthinkable becomes normal when faced with atrocities on a daily basis.

Powers does a good job, especially given that this is his first novel.  His primary writing style is poetry, and that shows through in this effort.  Instead of an action-driven account of war, he delves more into the psyche of the main character and his friend from basic training.  The chapters jump between different time periods of the six year span of the story, going from engagements in Iraq to basic training at Fort Dix to his post-war civilian life back in Richmond Virginia.  The initial feeling (in my case) was a sense of randomness, as the pivotal event that explains everything isn't revealed up front.  But as things progress, the pre-, mid-, and post-war jumps start to gel into a complete picture, but not one that leaves the reader with any sense of fair play or justice.  War is hell, reality can be hell, and sometimes that's all there is... actions make sense at the time, but they'll never be judged in that context.

The Yellow Birds wouldn't normally be "recreational reading" material for me, as I don't usually gravitate towards novels that are more emotional than physical.  However, reading this was like having someone bludgeon me with an emotional 2 x 4.  This book left some impressions inside me that will take some time to smooth out.

Disclosure:
Obtained From: Library
Payment: Free

11/27/2012

Book Review - The Willpower Instinct: How Self-Control Works, Why It Matters, and What You Can Do To Get More of It by Kelly McGonigal, Ph.D.

Category Book Review Kelly McGonigal Ph.D The Willpower Instinct: How Self-Control Works Why It Matters and What You Can Do To Get More of It
The Willpower Instinct: How Self-Control Works, Why It Matters, and What You Can Do To Get More of It

Why is it that we don't do the things we should be doing, and we end up doing the things we know will not help us in the long run? Kelly McGonigal, Ph.D. covers that very topic in her book The Willpower Instinct: How Self-Control Works, Why It Matters, and What You Can Do To Get More of It.  While it might sound like yet another self-improvement book, Willpower actually explains the "why" of how the brain works (backed by her experience with students in a course with the same name) and offers practical steps to implement in a ten week program.  It's already got me re-thinking on-the-spot decisions, and that's a good thing.

Contents:
Welcome to Willpower 101; I Will, I Won't, I Want - What Willpower Is, and Why It Matters; The Willpower Instinct - Your Body Was Born to Resist Cheesecake; Too Tired to Resist - Why Self-Control Is Like a Muscle; Permission to Sin - Why Being Good Gives Us Permission to Be Bad; The Brain's Big Lie - Why We Mistake Wanting for Happiness; What the Hell - How Feeling Bad Leads to Giving In; Putting the Future on Sale - The Economics of Instant Gratification; Infected! Why Willpower is Contagious; Don't Read This Chapter - The Limits of "I Won't" Power; Final Thoughts; Acknowledgements; Notes

The book is designed to be read much like you were in her course.  Reading one chapter a week allows you to think about the material as it applies to a goal you've chosen to work through.  The steps build on each other, and you end up with a good understanding about why you do the things you do, as well as techniques that help you overcome the failure triggers of the past.  Even the mere understanding of will-power, won't-power, and want-power is powerful enough to break you out of your mold. It certainly did for me...

What also makes Willpower a great book is that McGonigal is a very good writer.  She mixes in science, reality, and humor in a way that makes it a fun read that doesn't feel like a normal self-improvement book.  The examples hit home in a deep way, and the phrase "I could take that step" went through my mind more than once.  Now that I've read through the entire book once (but not in the one-chapter-per-week model), I plan on re-reading it using the recommended approach.  With the overall concepts in place, I want to take each week's worth of material and apply it specifically.  The only hard part will be to choose what broken part to work on first...

The annual rite of New Year's resolutions is coming up.  Rather than blow them all by January 4th, pick up a copy of The Willpower Instinct and put some structure behind your resolutions.  If you plug away, you'll be a far different person by March 1st, 2013 than you were on January 1st.

Disclosure:
Obtained From: Library
Payment: Free

11/19/2012

Question from a reader (XPages-related)... How does Notes get a document by NoteID?

Category IBM XPages
I received a question in my email the other day, and I wanted to open it up to the XPages community.  I think that the answer from a Notes client perspective might not be the correct answer given the XPages angle.  Feel free to leave comment(s)...

The question is: How does Notes get a document by NoteID?

It seems to me that it takes the NoteID and then compares it to each value in an internal list (index?) until it finds the document. This approach works fine if the database is small. However....I have a client that runs a database containing one million documents. Even at this extreme the user must only wait a second or two for the document to be found and opened, So it is still within acceptable limits. The fun really starts when you have an XPages repeat control that displays data from sixty documents. This XPage can take TWO MINUTES to open! Not so acceptable


I'm sure you know that the repeat control gets documents by NoteID to display. So the Domino server is receiving a list of sixty NoteIDs to find in the database. Now if the NoteIDs were represented in, for example, a B-Tree data structure then it would take only six matches or so to find each document. Instead it seems very much like the server is trying to find each one in a very long list.


I have gotten around the problem by moving the XPages application (including the documents accessed by the repeat control) to a smaller database. This is a bit kludgy but responds very fast to the user. But I'd still like to get some closure with this issue. I'd like to know what really happens in the black-box-that-is-Domino when you ask it to get a doc by ID. So far the IBM people that I've hit with this question have run away and hid. Not very helpful so all I can say now is......


help me Obi-Wan, you're my only hope


cheers

11/04/2012

Book Review - A Wanted Man by Lee Child

Category Book Review Lee Child A Wanted Man
A Wanted Man: A Jack Reacher Novel

I like the Jack Reacher series by Lee Child... a lot.  Unfortunately, the last few installments have been uneven in terms of quality.  Some of the episodes advanced the Reacher character and story, while others felt more like placeholders tossed out to keep up the "book per year" pace.  A Wanted Man started out in the placeholder category for me.  But by the end, it had picked up sufficiently to keep me turning pages past the point where I would have turned out the light.

A Wanted Man starts out with Reacher in the middle of Nebraska at night, standing on the side of a freeway, hitchhiking his way to Virginia.  After 90 minutes, he finally gets picked up by a trio who are supposedly headed to Chicago.  But Reacher quickly figures out that the two guys in the car are not who they claim to be, and the woman is an unwilling passenger.  He also understands that he's now an additional hostage, and the wheels start turning in his mind... who are they, what did they do, where are they going, and most of all, how can he rescue the woman and escape?  

The story started out on the slow side, in my opinion.  The "action" shifts back and forth between Reacher's dilemma and the crime scene involving the two men who picked him up.  I know that Reacher is highly analytical, but the scene descriptions and Reacher's machinations are overly drawn out.  The detail didn't make up for the lack of pace.  But once Reacher makes his escape and hooks up with the authorities (on his terms, not theirs), things started to get somewhat more interesting.  Reacher's attitude begins to show up, and I enjoyed the tension between what the FBI agent knew she should do with Reacher vs. what she ended up doing.  The various twists were interesting, and took the story in a direction I didn't expect.  Having said that, I wasn't overly thrilled with the ending, as it seemed that there were still a large number of unknowns and loose ends that weren't resolved.  

I hate to say it, but the Reacher series might have hit the point of "so what"... Seventeen books in a series is a lot, and it's hard to keep the stories and plots fresh.  I still like Reacher as a character, and I have no doubt I'll read the next one that Child is working on, Never Go Back.  But it'll be a library book read, and I won't be overly concerned about where I'm at on the hold list.  

(P.S. - Casting Tom Cruise as Jack Reacher in the movie version of One Shot?  Really?  Did the movie execs or directors ever *read* a Jack Reacher novel? Worst casting decision ever...)

Disclosure:
Obtained From: Library
Payment: Free

11/03/2012

Book Review - The Data Journalism Handbook, edited by Jonathan Gray, Liliana Bounegru, and Lucy Chambers

Category Book Review Jonathan Gray Liliana Bounegru Lucy Chambers The Data Journalism Handbook
The Data Journalism Handbook

Occasionally I grab a book that far surpasses my expectations and shifts my perspective of an entire business.  This was one of those books... The Data Journalism Handbook, edited by Jonathan Gray, Liliana Bounegru, and Lucy Chambers.  As a writer, I was thinking I'd pick up a few points on technical reporting.  WRONG! This is about how data is changing the world of journalism in terms of how a story is told and how the reader interacts with it.

Contents:
Introduction; In The Newsroom; Case Studies; Getting Data; Understanding Data; Delivering Data

The composition of The Data Journalism Handbook is unique, in that over seventy people and organizations contributed the content.  These contributions range from ideas on the topic to case studies of stories that successfully combined narrative with data analysis and visualization to involve the reader.  Normally, a book written in that fashion is less than satisfactory, as the multiple voices and styles ruin the continuity of the content.  Kudos to the editors for not letting that happen here.  It's very readable, and that lets the content and value come through.

I hadn't heard of data driven journalism prior to reading, and I had my view of journalism shifted significantly.  The handbook explains how access to raw data (and the ability to find and format it) provides story ideas as well as becoming part of the story itself.  With data visualization tools, data can be put online and allows readers to understand facts in ways that words can't always communicate.  Additionally, the readers can use the tools to drill down and display data that's specific to them (data for their neighborhood, city, school, etc.)  The journalist works closely with the data technologist to figure out how best to combine narrative and data to report stories at level of detail that wasn't possible even just ten years ago.

With the rise of digital media and news reporting, the job and the skill set of a journalist continues to change dramatically.  The Data Journalism Handbook does an excellent job in covering one important aspect of that changing environment.  I'd consider it required reading for anyone who considers themselves a journalist, as well as anyone who wants to see how their technology skills are being applied in the field of journalism.  

Disclosure:
Obtained From: Library
Payment: Free

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Thomas "Duffbert" Duff

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