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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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12/30/2012

Book Review - The Suicide Effect by L. J. Sellers

Category Book Review L. J. Sellers The Suicide Effect
The Suicide Effect

I picked up The Suicide Effect by L. J. Sellers from Amazon as a free Kindle book the other day.  The premise sounded interesting (pharmaceutical company hiding information about their blockbuster drug undergoing trials), so I had moderate expectations of an interesting read.  Unfortunately, there were too many character and story line issues that I couldn't get over.

The basic plot follows Sula Moreno, a PR representative for Prolabs.  Prolabs has a new anti-depressant drug that is showing major promise, and they're about to be acquired by a larger firm.  Karl Rudker, the head of Prolabs, is a sociopathic CEO who is banking everything on the merger so he can move up the career ladder.  When the head scientist gives him news that there could be a risk of suicide for certain ethnic types, he doesn't want that news told to the FDA and orders the records destroyed.  Sula overhears the conversation, and Rudker suspects she's going to blow the whistle on him and the firm.  When the head scientist is found murdered, Sula realizes that she's the only one who can bring the truth to light.  However, Rudker is going off the deep end trying to close the merger, and he's willing to do whatever's necessary to keep Sula from passing along evidence.

Generally speaking, the plot is OK.  It's the execution of it that fails.  Sula comes from a troubled past, and she's trying to regain custody of her son. She's barely scraping by, and is trying to conserve what little money she makes.  But once she's fired from Prolabs, she's continually eating out and spending money like she has a nest egg somewhere.  She's got major anxiety issues, yet she decides to fly to Puerto Rico (via tickets from a friend) to interview the widows of two men that committed suicide on the new drug.  I realize that at times you have to suspend reality a bit for a story to work.  But it seemed like I was having to do that most of the time here, and it just didn't work for me.

I wanted to like The Suicide Effect, but it didn't happen.  

Disclosure:
Obtained From: Amazon
Payment: Free

12/30/2012

Book Review - Lethal by Sandra Brown

Category Book Review Sandra Brown Lethal
Lethal/

Sandra Brown is one of those authors I need to start reading on a regular basis.  A friend gave me a copy of her novel Lethal, and I loved it.  I would have liked a little bit more at the end, but still... a great read.  

Honor Gillette is a single mom living in a small Louisiana town with her young daughter. Her husband was a police officer who died in a traffic accident.  After a mass shooting at a local trucking company, she finds what appears to be a vagrant lying injured in her front yard.  Unfortunately, that vagrant turns out to be Lee Coburn, the person who the police are looking at as the shooter in the killings.  He takes Gillette and her daughter as hostages, and she's determined to do whatever she can to keep her daughter safe.  But everything is not what it seems, and Coburn explains that her husband may have been killed to cover up a conspiracy.  Coburn needs to find out what what Gillette's husband knew, and Gillette needs to figure out whether she trusts Coburn enough to work with him to find the truth about what really happened to her husband.  If Coburn is right, no one that she knows and trusts is who they seem to be...

Brown does a stellar job with the characters, plot, and pacing in Lethal.  Coburn is a perfect mix of tough-guy killer who finds himself at a loss on how to deal with simple things like a child's kiss.  Gillette feels very real as a mom who is torn between protecting her daughter and finding out whether her husband's death was more than just a random event.  I didn't see the final twist coming, but it worked well.  My only complaint is that the epilogue didn't give a definite conclusion to everything.  One more sentence could have resolved it... just one!  Still, it was a "can't put it down" novel.

Lethal was well worth reading, and it convinced me that I need to start catching up on Brown's earlier work.

Disclosure:
Obtained From: Friend
Payment: Free

12/30/2012

Book Review - The Fridgularity by Mark A. Rayner

Category Book Review Mark A. Rayner The Fridgularity
The Fridgularity

The Fridgularity... when the 'net becomes a sentient being... and communicates to man via a web-enabled refrigerator.  That's the driving force behind Mark A. Rayner's novel, and it was one of the more entertaining and funny books I've read this year.  I had a hard time putting it down, as I wanted to see how everything turned out.

Blake Given is a lowly peon in an advertising agency, and he doesn't want much from life.  In fact, a promotion to work in the Creative Department would be fine.  But after a night of drinking with some friends, he gets home to find that his web-enabled refrigerator wants to communicate with him.  This entity, which has named itself Zathir, has taken over all forms of digital technology worldwide, and it has chosen Given to be its interface to the "human person" world.  He's as confused about this as everyone else, but there doesn't seem to be any way to talk Zathir out of it.  As the world tries to cope with going back to an analog existence, Given finds himself between two competing religious groups that have formed around the concept of this new lifeform.  One views Given as "The Speaker" and treats him with reverence, and the other wants to kill him as the personification of evil.  But all Given wants is for Zathir not to blow up the world with nukes, and to have the 'net turned back on so everyone will just leave him alone.  

Rayner does a number of things that make this an off-beat, funny story.  Zathir is actually a collection of entities as far as Given can tell, and the different fonts used for communication gives him an indication of which Zathir he's talking with.  That gave Rayner a nice way to have Zathir take on multiple personalities in a humorous way.  His portrayal of one character as a "textrovert" who couldn't live without 'net access was funny, as was the characterization of the online-gaming lunatic that leads the opposition to Zathir.  The scenes were great with some good dialogue, too.  Watching people create analog versions of Twitter, Tumbler, and Facebook was great.  All in all, an enjoyable read.

If you wonder how the Singularity might happen (and you have a sense of humor), The Fridgularity would be a good read.

Disclosure:
Obtained From: Author
Payment: Free

12/30/2012

Book Review - Bullspotting: Finding Facts in the Age of Misinformation by Loren Collins

Category Book Review Loren Collins Bullspotting: Finding Facts in the Age of Misinformation
Bullspotting: Finding Facts in the Age of Misinformation

Bullspotting: Finding Facts in the Age of Misinformation by Loren Collins is one of those books you'd like to force everyone to read before they post anything online or express their "beliefs".  Collins does an excellent job in categorizing the different types of misinformation you often encounter when people are trying to convince you that their "alternative" views are legitimate.  Once you understand how people support those opinions, you can effectively counter the arguments.  Of course, it doesn't mean they'll actually change, though... :)

Contents:
Introduction; Baloney Detection; Denialism; Conspiracy Theories; Rumors; Quotations; Hoaxes; Pseudoscience; Pseudohistory; Pseudolaw; What's The Harm; Notes, Index

Collins uses real-life examples in all the chapters to illustrate his points.  For example, denialism is covered with the use of the young earth theory, JFK's assassination by a single person, the moon landing, Shakespeare's authorship, and the Holocaust.  Each chapter covers how to spot that type of "logic", as well as the arguments that you'll encounter when you try to point out the fallacies.  I found that breaking out the different types helped my understanding, as it broke down the feeling of being overwhelmed by the stupidity that is out there.

It's sad that the people who need this information the most will be the ones least likely to read Bullspotting, but one can hope.  For everyone else, this is a very good read.

Disclosure:
Obtained From: Library
Payment: Borrowed

12/27/2012

Book Review - Hacking Healthcare by Fred Trotter and David Uhlman

Category Book Review Fred Trotter David Uhlman Hacking Healthcare
Hacking Healthcare: A Guide to Standards, Workflows, and Meaningful Use

One of the ways often cited for cutting health care costs is to have electronic medical records.  On the surface, it's easy to think that it can't be all that difficult, right?  Actually, it's a nightmare.  Fred Trotter and David Uhlman do a good job in explaining the huge number of issues inherent in electronic health records (EHR) in their book Hacking Healthcare.  If you're in Information Technology and you touch the health care industry in any way, this should be a must-read.

Contents:
Introduction; An Anatomy of Medical Practice; Medical Billing; The Bandwidth of Paper; Herding Cats - Healthcare Management and Business Office Operations; Patient-Facing Software; Human Error; Meaningful Use Overview; A Selective History of EHR Technology; Ontologies; Interoperability; HIPAA - The Far-Reaching Healthcare Regulation; Open Source Systems; Appendix - Meaningful Use Implementation Assessment

Hacking Healthcare bridges the gap between "software does x, then y, then z" and what really happens when someone steps into the clinic (and earlier).  There are endless use cases that need to be accounted for, no universally agreed-upon unique identifier for a patient, values that change over time, records in various locations, no standard way to share information between providers, and so on.  Trotter and Uhlman cover the issues involved, and also talk about the current state of EHR.  There are competing standards and systems, each with various pros and cons.  There are no easy answers, but with this book, you have a much better understanding of the issues that need to be addressed.

I would recommend this book to anyone interested in health care or health insurance technology.  It's a low-cost investment that will have huge payback in terms of how you approach technology solutions in that space.

Disclosure:
Obtained From: Publisher
Payment: Free

12/24/2012

Book Review - Federal Prison: A Comprehensive Survival Guide by Jonathan Richards

Category Book Review Jonathan Richards Federal Prison: A Comprehensive Survival Guide
Federal Prison: A Comprehensive Survival Guide

While I have no plans to use this information (and I hope I never need to), the subject intrigued me... Federal Prison: A Comprehensive Survival Guide by Jonathan Richards.  Written by someone who went through the system for financial fraud, it's a well-researched and well-written guide for what to expect if you find yourself facing the prospect of doing time behind bars.  
Contents:
Why I Wrote This Book And Who Should Read It; Who This Book Can Help; Introduction; Quick Facts About The Bureau Of Prisons; The Importance Of Your PSR; Preparing For Prison; Security Designation; Remanded Custody vs. Self-Surrender; Prison - Day One; Welcome To General Population; Your First Few Weeks On The Inside; Eating In Prison; Work Assignment; Visits; Practicing Religion; Medical Care; Staying Healthy Physically And Mentally; Violence And Sexual Assault; Education; Furloughs; Release; Conclusion; Federal Inmate Stories; Special Housing Unit Information Bulletin For Inmates; Admissions & Orientation Handbook; Visiting Regulations; Commissary Shopping List; Glossary of Prison Terms

Richards was indicted for student financial aid fraud in 2005 and was released in 2007.  Serving his sentence in the Federal Medical Center Devens in Ayer, Massachusetts, he went through all the worries and fears that you'd expect for someone who never dreamed they'd spend time as a prisoner in the system.  When he got out, he decided to take everything he had learned and write a guide for those who are facing the same situation.  Given that this is the third edition of the book, it's become a go-to guide for getting a realistic look at what's going to happen.

What is most notable in the Survival Guide is the shattering of the media-generated image of prison life.  For sure, life in prison is not easy.  But in most medium and lower security facilities, you are not going to be assaulted the moment you step through the gate.  There are official prison rules that you need to abide by to stay out of "the hole", and there are the unofficial rules that allow you to live with your fellow inmates.  Richards' book gives a realistic view of what's expected and what should be avoided at all costs.  He also deals with all the minor details that can make a difference, such as getting money in your prison account or subscribing to periodicals to keep your mind active and fresh.  Without a guide such as this, you probably wouldn't think to take these steps to prepare for your incarceration.

I've only had one friend who ended up behind bars, and he wasn't the type of person who you'd normally expect to end up there.  If he had been able to have this book ahead of time, I'm sure his transition would have gone much smoother.  I hope you never have the need to read this book or need the information, but if you find yourself facing jail time, I'd highly recommend this book.  

Disclosure:
Obtained From: Author
Payment: Free

12/23/2012

Book Review - The Moscow Club by Joseph Finder

Category Book Review Joseph Finder The Moscow Club
The Moscow Club

I thought I had read all of Joseph Finder's books, but the re-release of his first novel The Moscow Club reminded me that I had missed that one.  Through the magic that is the InterLibrary Loan system, I was able to get the original hardcopy and give it a read.  I finished it today, and it was an enjoyable read... plenty of espionage and intrigue set during the time when Gorbachev ruled the Soviet Union...

The story revolves around a CIA analyst, Charlie Stone, and a rumored document called the Lenin Testament.  He has information that seems to point to a potential coup in the Soviet Union, which could lead to a resumption of Cold War hostilities.  But the deeper Stone digs into the information, the more it all ties back to his father who was imprisoned during the McCarthy era for alleged activities with the Russians.  Stone believes that his father was sacrificed to hide a larger secret known to few in the US intelligence community.  That secret is still very much alive, and some very powerful (and deadly) people are willing to do whatever is necessary to make sure Stone doesn't discover the truth.

For Finder's first novel, I'm impressed.  The Moscow Club reminds me of some of the classic Soviet-based spy novels, with plenty of twists and double-crosses.  The scenes make you feel like you've been transported back to that point in time.  Even when I thought I knew what was going to happen, something would twist and shed a whole new light on what was going on.  I enjoyed Stone's resourcefulness to find ways to stay one step ahead of his killers, as well as watching him discover exactly what he was capable of while trying to stay alive.  All in all, I spent much of yesterday and today buried in the book to find out what would happen next.

I'm glad to see The Moscow Club will get a chance to be seen by a whole new set of readers.  Finder is a great writer, and this novel is one I'd recommend for fans of the spy/espionage genre.

Disclosure:
Obtained From: Library
Payment: Borrowed

12/22/2012

Book Review - Delusion in Death by J. D. Robb

Category Book Review J. D. Robb Delusion in Death
Delusion in Death

I am still in awe that J. D. Robb (aka Nora Roberts) can crank out new installments of the In Death series at the rate of about two per year... not even counting all the writing she does under her real name!  I'm even more amazed that each new story involving Lieutenant Eve Dallas still retains a freshness that all too often disappears the longer a writer goes in a series.  Delusion in Death is the latest In Death novel, and like all the others, I devoured it.  

In Delusion, Dallas gets tagged on a crime scene more grizzly than any she's ever seen.  Over 80 people died in a bar, all within approximately 12 minutes, and all apparently due to injuries inflicted on each other. A deadly mixture of LSD, Zeus, and other drugs caused mass hallucinations and rage, but there's not many survivors to offer up clues as to how it happened and who might be responsible.  A repeat of the incident underscores the urgency to find those responsible for the killings, as no one is safe until Dallas and her crew solve the case.  

Robb starts off Delusion quickly and it doesn't slow down much.  Along the way, Summerset's past as well as his relationship with Roarke come into play to help break the case open, forcing Dallas to put aside her continual harassment of him.  She also has to deal with reoccurring nightmares involving her mother's death, as she continues to work through who she is regardless of what happened to her as a child.  Throw in a great twist and final showdown at the end, and Delusion in Death was yet another great addition to the series.

And I'm already on the hold list at the library for the next installment...

Disclosure:
Obtained From: Library
Payment: Borrowed

12/22/2012

Book Review - Thursday at Noon by William F. Brown

Category Book Review William F. Brown Thursday at Noon
Thursday at Noon

I've enjoyed reading William Brown's novels in the past, and I welcomed the chance to read and review Thursday at Noon.  It's an interesting espionage tale set back in the 60's, when the Middle East and Egypt were in turmoil.  Of course, that could just as well be said for now.  Some things never change.  

In Thursday, Richard Thompson is a CIA agent that's approaching the end of the line for his career.  His last operation failed, and he's been exiled to Egypt in hopes that he'll not cause any more trouble.  He'd be happy to fade away, but fate has other plans.  While sitting in a bar minding his own business, a local shows up trying to sell Thompson a set of pictures that he claims are of vital importance.  Thompson wants no part of it, as he sees it as an attempt to set him up.  But when the same person ends up as a beheaded body, suspicion falls on Thompson as the murderer (or at least someone who was part of it).  Thompson takes flight to avoid being the next dead body, as well as to try and figure out the significance of the information that was shown to him in the bar.  What he uncovers is an alliance between German and Arab extremists that threaten the safety and stability of the entire region.  On top of trying to stay alive, he has to figure out how to contact Egypt's new president to stop what will be a catastrophic act of terror.

Thursday at Noon was a fun read that I'd definitely recommend to people who like the spy genre.  Brown creates a strong sense of time and place, and the characters have depth and complexity.  The plot pacing works well, and I kept thinking "just one more chapter" as I was reading (knowing I had other things I should be doing).  I'm definitely looking forward to his next novel...

Disclosure:
Obtained From: Author
Payment: Free

12/18/2012

Book Review - Off The Grid by P. J. Tracy

Category Book Review P. J. Tracy Off The Grid
Off the Grid (A Monkeewrench Novel)

I just finished Off The Grid by P. J. Tracy the other day.  It's the latest in the Monkeewrench series, and it's been a while since I've visited the main characters.  If you're new to the series, don't start here.  Go back and read Monkeewrench (the first book in the series), as it will set the table for the cast of characters.  If you jump in here, you'll get a moderate story with very little context.  If you have been keeping up, Off The Grid isn't too bad.  It's a good vacation read to burn a few hours.

The story picks up with Grace McBride on a boat in the Caribbean with her retired FBI friend John Smith.  She wakes up in the middle of the night, sensing that's something's amiss.  When she goes up on deck, she finds two men about ready to slice Smith's throat.  Two bullets dispatch the would-be killers, but the question remains as to why they were after Smith... especially since they had his picture with them, which means he was a specific target.  McBride and Smith go to ground, while alerting the Monkeewrench group as to what happened.  This starts their considerable computer skills in motion to find the connection.  Meanwhile, the two Minnesota detectives Leo Magozzi and Gino Rolseth get tabbed on two murder scenes and the death of a missing girl.  When they investigate the scenes, they see evidence that points to a terror plot set to unfold in less than a week. Smith seems to be the common thread tying the killings, but the question is whether he (and the Monkeewrench crew) will remain alive long enough to figure out the connection.

Off The Grid is a little light on character development as a whole, and relies (in my opinion) on what's been built up in the previous installments.  I found the story entertaining, but not quite at the "can't put it down" level as in some of the earlier ones.  Still, I'm looking forward to the next episode...

Disclosure:
Obtained From: Library
Payment: Borrowed

12/15/2012

Book Review - The Secret Race: Inside the Hidden World of the Tour de France: Doping, Cover-ups, and Winning at All Costs by Tyler Hamilton and Daniel Coyle

Category Book Review Tyler Hamilton Daniel Coyle The Secret Race: Inside the Hidden World of the Tour de France: Doping Cover-ups and Winning at All Costs
The Secret Race: Inside the Hidden World of the Tour de France: Doping, Cover-ups, and Winning at All Costs

It's become an expected response in sports these days... someone tests positive for performance enhancing drugs (PEDs), and immediately the denials start.  Nowhere is this more prevalent than in cycling, where scandal after scandal has rocked the sport.  The Secret Race: Inside the Hidden World of the Tour de France: Doping, Cover-ups, and Winning at All Costs by Tyler Hamilton and Daniel Coyle peels back the code of silence among riders, and tells the story of Hamilton's rise and fall in the racing world.  Hamilton's decision to come clean with the truth about his use of PEDs, as well as to expose Lance Armstrong's role when it came to doping, makes for a well-written expose that rings all too true.

For me, there are a couple of reasons why I enjoyed this book (I actually finished it in a single day).  First, Coyle did an excellent job in researching all the claims and statements made by Hamilton.  Hamilton's story is backed up by others, as well as by testimony that has come out in various legal actions against Armstrong.  Everything has the ring of truth to it, with no sense that there's a hidden agenda or vendetta.  Yes, the picture he paints of Armstrong is not pretty, but it meshes with what others have said or alluded to.  Armstrong ran the team, and was willing to do anything necessary to win, regardless of the cost.

The second thing that struck me during my reading is that the decision to start doping, and later to deny it in the face of all accusations, isn't an easy one for most riders to make.  They know it's wrong, and it's something that most would prefer not do, all things being equal.  But when racing is your life, and you know that you need that extra boost to compete at the top levels, it's not easy to say no and leave all your dreams behind.  And when it all collapses, the pressure to maintain the lie and hold on to what you have is overwhelming.  Hamilton's struggles make it easier to understand the "why" behind much of it. He doesn't offer up excuses or say "it's not my fault."  This feels like an honest confession by someone who is tired of living a lie.

There are people who are convinced without a doubt that Armstrong never doped, and that all the accusations against him are made by people trying to tear him down.  For those individuals, nothing in this book will convince them otherwise.  But if you have an open mind and want to hear from someone who was part of it all, The Secret Race is a recommended read.  It puts a human face on the struggles of athletes who have to make (and live with) choices that will likely come back to haunt them later on in life.

Disclosure:
Obtained From: Library
Payment: Borrowed

12/12/2012

Book Review - Crisis of Faith by Eliza Wood

Category Book Review Eliza Wood Crisis of Faith
Crisis of Faith

Doing a review of Crisis of Faith by Eliza Wood is a bit difficult, as my reactions to the book are all over the map based on what part I'm talking about.  This is one of those book where your reaction and enjoyment are dependent on what you were reading it for...

I'll state my bias up front: I generally do not like what I call "soapbox novels".  This is where the author has a very specific view on some topic, and the story is secondary to the message that they are trying to convey.  Crisis of Faith falls squarely in that category.  The story and plot, in my opinion, takes a *far* back seat to the information the author is presenting.  I thought the characters were only there as supporting players for speeches and information, and the action and plot details don't do much more than provide a scene for the next discussion of the topic.  Based on that, I would not be a fan of the book.

On the flip side, the message that's conveyed is challenging and thought-provoking.  The characters are attempting to write a new version of the Bible that removes references to topics that are often used by radical sects to justify horrific actions.  Sections on things like slavery, violence towards women, and war will be removed, and they will call on all secular and spiritual leaders to promote this more-enlightened version of scripture.  

The plot action is weak on how and why people will embrace this, as I just don't see groups jumping on board with nothing more than a letter demanding that they do so. And, in some ways, you might see this as somewhat reminiscent of Dan Brown Da Vinci Code theories and conspiracies to manipulate the original intent over the years to support a religious power structure.  But what Crisis of Faith does bring out is the tendency of people to stick with the positive Bible stories and ignore the parts that don't really mesh well with their already-held beliefs.  In reality, *all* passages need to be considered and examined to come up your world view. Picking and choosing some parts and ignoring others while you profess to believe it all isn't a valid option.  

Another interesting part of the message is to view how people and groups have already revised "truth" over the years.  Society has changed their views on things like slavery over the years, from it being a God-given right to being outlawed.  Granted, some would say that the revisions were wrong and that the truth has been strayed from.  Conversely, many would argue that freedom is a God-given right.  Which right prevails? Did a truth become untrue? The questions don't get easier, but they have to be asked.

Kudos to Ms. Wood for presenting an interesting topic with a number of things to think about.  If I were to go into the book looking for message first, story second, it would fare better in my opinion.  But since I was thinking novel first with a subtext, I wasn't quite as thrilled.  Based on your mindset and willingness to be open to the topic, your mileage might well vary from mine.

Disclosure:
Obtained From: Publicist
Payment: Free

12/08/2012

Book Review - Mad River by John Sandford

Category Book Review John Sandford Mad River
Mad River (A Virgil Flowers Novel)

While I've gotten burned out on the Lucas Davenport series by John Sandford, I like what he's doing with the Virgil Flowers character as a separate series of novels.  Mad River is the latest installment, and I looked forward to getting it from the library when my name made it to the top of the hold lists.  I wanted to like it... I really did.  But it seems like the book was about a third too long with an ending that fell flat (in my opinion).  I never got lost in the action, as much as I wanted to...

The plot revolves around Flowers getting called in on what turns into a serial killing spree.  Three people from a small town in Minnesota are looking to pull off a few burglaries to get some money and head west.  But the first home invasion goes bad, and one of the occupants ends up getting shot and killed.  Unfortunately, that just makes it easier to kill the next person, and the next person, and so on.  Flowers gets a lead on who is responsible for the trail of dead bodies, but finding the three killers isn't as easy as it sounds when you're in the middle of nowhere and there are few eye witnesses left to point the way.

In terms of plot, the book wasn't bad.  You know who the killers are, and the story shifts from Flowers to the killers and back again to advance the action.  He suspects there's a different motivation other than money, but he can't get the proof he needs to take appropriate action.  And that's where I had problems.  Once that angle was introduced, it felt like the story just went in circles in order to kill time before the end.  Even when "the end" happened, the larger resolution seemed like a tacked-on finish to take up another 50 to 100 pages.  I hit the last page and actually said "that was it?"  I was disappointed...

I'm hoping Mad River is just an "off" installment in the Virgil Flowers series.  I don't want to put it in the same "in no big rush to read new ones" category as the Lucas Davenport novels have become for me.  But I'm definitely holding my expectations in check to see what direction things go.

Disclosure:
Obtained From: Library
Payment: Borrowed

12/07/2012

Using Amazon Locker As Your Delivery "P.O Box"...

Category Amazon Locker
About a month or so ago, this big orange "thing" appeared in the 7-11 I normally frequent for my cold carbonated diet caffeine fixes.  After a little research, I found that they had installed an Amazon Locker.  What's an Amazon Locker, you may ask?

A picture named M2

Basically, it's like a post office box for your Amazon deliveries.  You add the Amazon Locker to your account as a delivery address, and you can then have things shipped there for pick-up.  This would be perfect for packages (within a reasonable size) that you have shipped to your house, but you're not around to pick them up right away.  It's a secured delivery point, and there's no chance of someone taking the package off your porch before you get it.

Since I work from home, I'm usually not all that concerned about packages being delivered here.  I'm around, I can generally hear the Fed-Ex/UPS/USPS van when it idles out front, and they don't sit on the front porch for very long.  But still... I get a lot of things from Amazon, and I'm a geek... I had to try this out.

I added "Ada" to my Amazon account, which is the name that's assigned to the Amazon Locker at the 7-11.  I bought something, selected that as my shipping address, and then waited.  A day later, I got the SMS notification (it also came via email) that my package had arrived, Ada had it, and it listed my pickup code:

A picture named M3

Cool... off to 7-11...

A picture named M4

Meet Ada...

A picture named M5

To "turn Ada on", just touch her screen...

A picture named M6

Enter the confirmation code...

A picture named M7

After a couple of seconds to confirm my code...

A picture named M8

Open Seseme!

A picture named M9

There's my package, delivered to Ada, and now mine.

A picture named M10

I'm impressed with how well this works.  It's not a "must use" feature for me for every package I order, but I can see definite benefits.  It's much safer without a doubt, I have a record that it was left at that specific location, and I could use this when I want to order something to keep as a surprise... like Christmas or birthday presents.  The lower lockers are a reasonable size, but I definitely wouldn't be ordering household appliances with shipment to Ada.  It may be that Amazon matches the package dimensions with the locker sizes at the time of the order, and then prevents shipment to a Locker if it won't fit.  I may have to test those limits at some point.  :)

If you have an Amazon Locker location close by (Ada definitely qualifies for me), I'd highly recommend adding it to your Amazon account's address book.  The Locker concept has a lot of benefits with (as far as I can see) no downsides.

12/02/2012

Book Review - The Complete Idiot's Guide to Twitter Marketing by Brett Petersel and Esther Schindler

Category Book Review Brett Petersel Esther Schindler The Complete Idiot's Guide to Twitter Marketing
The Complete Idiot's Guide to Twitter Marketing

It's easy to fall into the trap of thinking that using Twitter to promote your company is easy. Technically, typing 140 characters *is* easy. In reality, you can do far more damage to your company's image and reputation with Twitter if you don't think things through and understand how Twitter functions.  Esther Schindler and Brett Petersel do an excellent job of covering that topic in their book The Complete Idiot's Guide to Twitter Marketing.  From a corporate or organizational angle, you really shouldn't start your Twitter marketing program without reading this book.

Contents:
Part 1 - The Big Picture of Twitter Marketing: Twitter Marketing Basics; The Rewards of Twitter Done Right; The Pitfalls of Twitter Marketing
Part 2 - Getting Started: Building Blocks of Using Twitter; Understanding the Twitter Community; What to Tweet; Finding the Right People to Follow; Building a Twitter Following; The Art of the Hashtag
Part 3 - Twitter Marketing Campaigns: Designing a Successful Twitter Campaign; Logistics of Your Twitter Campaign; Your Social Media Team and Policies; Monitoring and Analyzing Your Twitter Campaigns; Tools to Tweet and Monitor Campaigns
Part 4 - Tailoring Twitter to Your Business Needs: How Small Businesses Can Use Twitter; How to Use Twitter in a Retail Environment; Using Twitter as a Customer Service Tool; Using Twitter for Business Communications
Part 5 - Integrating Twitter into Your Marketing Mix: Aligning Your Twitter Strategy with Other Online Marketing; Aligning Twitter with Offline Marketing
Appendixes; Glossary; Index

There are a number of things that make this such a great book.  For one, the writing style is highly conversational, and it feels like you're having a talk with a close friend who is explaining everything you ever needed to know about Twitter and marketing.  The personalities of the writers come through (can you say "chocolate"?), and that's a good thing.  It removes the barriers that a non-technical person would hit up against (confusion, boredom, etc).  It's actually a fun read.

Second, there are real-life examples on every page.  It's one thing to go on about how things should work from a theoretical or methodology perspective.  Esther and Brett don't fall into that trap.  Everything that's talked about in the various chapters is backed up with examples of how various companies have succeeded and failed (often spectacularly) in the real world.  As such, it's easy to understand *why* you should or shouldn't do something that they tell you about.

Finally, Brett and Esther go beyond the "here's what you do technically" information and offer a comprehensive approach to a complete marketing program with Twitter (hence the title).  You find out what metrics are best to track, why certain "obvious" measures aren't all they're touted to be (such as number of followers), and how to structure your Twitter activity to get the best response and the type of followers you want.  There are cases where organizations have stumbled into a positive and profitable Twitter presence, but it's far more common that an unplanned or unorganized Twitter program will fall short of expectations (or will backfire and cause more damage than if you never ventured into Twitter at all).

I'll admit that I may be biased in that I've worked with Esther in the past and I've followed her online over the years.  But everything that Brett and Esther cover in this book rings true based on my experiences and observations.  If you're an organization of *any* size that wants to establish a presence on Twitter, you owe it to yourself to read The Complete Idiot's Guide to Twitter Marketing.  It's a small investment that *will* have an immediate payback for your Twitter marketing efforts.

Disclosure:
Obtained From: Publisher
Payment: Free

12/01/2012

Book Review - New York Underground: The Anatomy of a City by Julia Solis

Category Book Review Julia Solis New York Underground: The Anatomy of a City
New York Underground: The Anatomy of a City

With the recent storm (Sandy) that hit New York and caused massive flooding, I wondered how all that water that would affect the various underground infrastructure in the city.  Specifically, what would happen to all those various parts of the subway system and tunnels that have been closed off and abandoned over the years?  Couple that with my fascination with urban exploration, and this was a logical book to check out... New York Underground: The Anatomy of a City by Julia Solis.  While it's not an exhaustive encyclopedia covering the history of subterranean New York, it does have some interesting information and great pictures.

Solis has spent plenty of time exploring what lies below street level in New York, so she's got the "been there, saw that" experience.  The book covers a variety of topics, such as the subway system, underground utilities, tunnels, and foundations.  Rather than trying to provide a comprehensive account of everything that's happened from the first dig until now (now being 2004 when the book was published), she relates the important background and interesting facts that drove some of her underground exploration.  That format provides a good format for her to share various photographs, both from her own camera and those taken by others over the years.  It's quite easy to get lost in the images, as they are sights that most people will never see (or areas that no longer exist).  It left me wondering what damage was done during the storm floods that will never be discovered, or that will only be discovered when it causes an active portion of the system to fail.

New York Underground doesn't take that long to read, but it's an interesting tour through parts of New York long since forgotten or abandoned.  It made me wonder what other secrets are still buried...

Disclosure:
Obtained From: Library
Payment: Borrowed

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