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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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02/26/2012

Book Review - Heat Rises by Richard Castle

Category Book Review Richard Castle Heat Rises
A picture named M2

Yeah, it's still a guilty pleasure of mine. I love the series Castle on TV, and the Nikki Heat novels by "Richard Castle" are just as fun to read as the series is fun to watch. Heat Rises is the third in the series of spin-off novels based on the background of the series. In the series, Richard Castle is a writer who hangs around the NYPD with Detective Kate Beckett as "research" for his next novel. He writes a series of novels centered around a detective named Nikki Heat who seems to bear a strong resemblance to Beckett, much to her dismay.  The last thing she needs or wants is everyone asking her if she's as hot as her literary character. Furthermore, the novel has a writer, Jamison Rook, who helps her solve crimes and is a part-time love interest.  Again, the implications for Beckett hit a bit too close for home.  

In this installment, Heat is tagged on the murder of a priest that was found dead in a club known for its "tortuous" adventures. She starts to dig into the murder like she would do for any victim, but her precinct captain tells her to stick to a particular theory and angle. It's not the one she thinks is the reason for the murder, and she tells the captain so in no uncertain words. It gets even more dicey when she uncovers a tie between the captain and the priest's murder. Whether that tie-in has anything to do with the Internal Affairs investigation he's undergoing is something that Heat can't figure out. When she continues to push her own investigation leads, she quickly finds that there are people who don't want her going there or digging anything up. They're willing to strip her of her badge and gun, thereby making sure she doesn't have the authority to continue her investigation. They may even be willing to go further to silence her, but they underestimate Heat's determination and Rook's creativity when it comes to getting answers, regardless of whether either have a badge.

As I've mentioned before on reviews for the Nikki Heat series, these are well done for what they are.  The plot and story read like a two hour episode of Castle, and it's pretty easy to imagine what the video would look like as it all plays out.  In fact, this particular novel brings to mind the end of season 3 in some portions of the story.  Even though all the characters in the book have different names than the characters in the show, that's about the only thing they differ on.  The only problem I had with Heat Rises was really my own fault. I ended up reading the book over about 10 days, which spanned two different episodes of Castle on TV. I had to work on trying to keep the book story line separate from what I was watching. Since the story didn't tie together until the very end, I was trying to keep all the threads straight every time I came back to the book. I would have done much better if I had read it like I normally devour books like these... give me two or three days, and I'm done.

Heat Rises is one of those books you'd want to have on a plane trip or on vacation at the beach.  Don't expect deep and complex insights into the human condition or anything... just approach it like you'd approach a weekly episode of Castle. Enjoy the characters and plot as entertainment, and it should be fine.

Disclosure:
Obtained From: Library
Payment: Borrowed

02/20/2012

Book Review - Personal Kanban: Mapping Work | Navigating Life by Jim Benson and Tonianne DeMaria Barry

Category Book Review Jim Benson Tonianne DeMaria Barry Personal Kanban: Mapping Work | Navigating Life
A picture named M2

To do lists... Getting Things Done... Time Management... Usually they're all focused on complex methodologies or the amount of things you can accomplish in a given timeframe (usually a day).  But instead of being busy, what if you focused on how effective you were in getting the necessary things done? Heck... what if it was also pretty simple?  That's what you get in the book Personal Kanban: Mapping Work | Navigating Life by Jim Benson and Tonianne DeMaria Barry.  To me, this was a book that "clicked" immediately and helped me see where I was going wrong in terms of frantically trying to do and be everything to everybody.

Contents: Foreword - The Agony of Crisis Management; Introduction - Personal Kanban - 100% New Age Free; The Basics of Personal Kanban; Building Your First Personal Kanban; My Time Management is in League with the Freeway; Nature Flows; Components of a Quality Life; Finding Our Priorities; Strive for Improvement; Endgame; Appendix A - Personal Kanban Design Patterns; Appendix B - Personal Kanban and Social Media

The basics of Personal Kanban are very simple. You need to be able to place work in context with who you are and what you need to accomplish.  Next, limits need to be placed on the WIP (Work In Progress) so that you can be effective in what you're doing.  Finally, you look at what you've done and learn how you might be able to do it more effectively next time.  That's really about it.  The tools to implement Personal Kanban are even more basic... sticky notes and a whiteboard/wall with three columns for Ready, WIP, and Done.  As you choose items from your Backlog (all those sticky notes with tasks and to do's written on them) that are ready to be worked based on your overall context, you move them into the Ready column.  As you start to work on them, they move into the WIP column.  And then to see and feel that sense of completion, the sticky note moves into the Done column. The goal isn't to have 100 items in Ready or WIP all the time.  If that's the case, you haven't gained anything.  Instead, the items that are Ready are ones that make sense to start based on the current situation. Even more important, the WIP column should only have a small number of items actually being worked on (try starting with three) at any given time.  If you have 15 items "in process", you're not managing anything. You're just reacting to whatever is squeaking the loudest. By understanding your own personal workflow limits, you'll know what you can and can't accomplish in a truly effective manner.  Again, it's not how productive or busy you are... it's how effective you are in what you choose to do.

The authors have an easy-going flow between them when it comes to writing style. Having also followed them on Twitter, I can see where that comes from. They enjoy what they do, and it shows through in this book.  By the time I was a third of the way through, I was already planning out my own implementation. The fact that I could start immediately and improve it as I went along was right in line with what kanban is all about... incremental improvements to become more effective and cut down on wasted effort.

I'd recommend Personal Kanban to anyone who is looking to get their work and/or personal life under control. The concepts work equally well in both environments, and you don't have to commit to an all-or-nothing methodology that costs major dollars to get started "properly".  It's hard to argue against sticky notes. :)  This will also be a book that I'll revisit on a periodic basis to look for new angles and slants on how I'm doing within the framework.  Overall, this is great material with the potential to make major differences in your life.

Disclosure:
Obtained From: Amazon
Payment: Purchase

02/20/2012

Book Revew - The Information Diet: A Case for Conscious Consumption by Clay A. Johnson

Category Book Review Clay A. Johnson The Information Diet: A Case for Conscious Consumption
A picture named M2

The Information Diet: A Case for Conscious Consumption by Clay A. Johnson is one of those books I'd like to give to a number of people I know, and then sit down and make sure they read it.  So many of the points he brings forth in the book are, in my opinion, the exact reasons why we as a society are in such a mess.  We've traded information for affirmation and entertainment, and we've lost the ability to think about issues for ourselves.  Of course, by viewing this book as I did, I'm probably perpetuating some of the very problems I complain about in others. :)  But knowing there's a problem is the first step towards trying to fix it.

Contents:
I - Introduction: Lessons from Obesity; Information, Power, and Survival; Big Info; We Are What We Seek; Welcome to Information Obesity; The Symptoms of Information Obesity
II - The Information Diet: Data Literacy; Attention Fitness; A Healthy Sense of Humor; How to Consume
III - Social Obesity: The Participation Gap; Transparency; Bridging the Gap; Political Infoveganism
A - A Special Note: Dear Programmer
B - Further Reading

Johnson uses an analogy that compares information to food intake.  If we eat wisely, then our bodies remain fit and we are healthy. However, if we gorge on junk food and empty calories, we become obese and our health suffers. He views information in the same way. Conscious exposure to different types of information from various sources allow us to form intelligent, considered opinions and positions. But mindless viewing of "news" that seeks only to solidify what you already believe pushes you into an unhealthy mode of information obesity... a condition where you believe anything you hear because you've lost your ability to think for yourself and to be challenged in your world views.  

To break away from the endless distractions and constant flow of information from sources like email, Twitter, Facebook, and other constant sources of data, he recommends setting yourself up to where you actually have to make efforts to be exposed to certain types of data flow. When you're working, configure your environment such that you don't have email, Twitter, or chat clients open. Ignore the web and the endless diversionary trails it can present. When you *are* in the mode of reading and information gathering, purposely seek out alternative views that challenge your basic assumptions. Instead of taking a news story as completely factual, choose to dig back to the source information for the story to see where the bias(es) are in the reporting... and there *will* be biases.  Especially true during this political campaign season, don't take a candidate's statements of "fact" as being factual at all. Compare it against the source of their information as well as against their own statements in the past.  Again, *think* about what you're being given as information.

Personally, I came away with a number of insights that have changed the way I view what I read. Probably the biggest change for me is the differentiation between information and affirmation. Online sites track what you read and view, and over time will tailor what you see to provide more of the same. For them, it's profitable as you are spending more time on the site and they can get more advertising dollars. But unfortunately, you end up being exposed to more and more information about what you already believe, and as such you lose touch with alternative possibilities. In your focused world, everyone agrees with you, therefore you must be right.  This affirmation of what you already believe is, once again in my opinion, most evident on media cable channels that offer up "news" that is biased towards a specific end of the political spectrum. All the "reporting" serves to affirm what the regular viewer already believes, so it simply solidifies opinions with no conflicting or constructive alternatives. Each group becomes more polarized in their world view, and the ability to discuss anything in a rational and considered way becomes impossible. The goal becomes how to show the other side exactly how wrong they are, and that causes the other party to dig in even deeper in their own defense. While I personally have a set of opinions and beliefs, I know I need to take conscious steps to allow conflicting opinions to enter my attention span and be judged on their merits, and not on my biases.

The Information Diet is not a large book, and you could argue that it might have been even more condensed without as much attention to the analogies to actual food intake and processing.  But regardless of size, I think that the concepts and practices here desperately need to be practiced by far more people in order to stop the fragmenting of our society, as well as the ability of a few "leaders" to control the thoughts and actions of millions who don't or won't think for themselves.

Disclosure:
Obtained From: Publisher
Payment: Free

02/12/2012

Book Review - 11/22/63: A Novel by Stephen King

Category Book Review Stephen King 11/22/63: A Novel
A picture named M2

While I end up liking most of the books that I read by Stephen King, he isn't an author that I salivate over when something new comes out. I'm not sure why, as I like the genre and the style of writing. Perhaps I'll chalk it up to having too many other things to read. :)  Anyway, 11/22/63: A Novel caught my interest in terms of what it might be like to go back and prevent an event in history that changed the world. Once I started reading, I was pretty much hooked. King put a slant on the typical time travel story that threw my expectations out the window and had me thinking about the "what if" moments of life...

The story revolves around Jake Epping, an ordinary teacher with an ordinary life... that is, until Al, the owner of the local diner, shows him something unexplainable. In the pantry, there is a "hole" that leads back to September 9th, 1958.  It's the same location at the same time with the same people every time they go through the passage. Furthermore, the exact same actions and events start happening when they arrive, and nobody there remembers that Jake or Al were ever there. If you think of the movie "Groundhog Day", you get the idea.  Regardless of how much time Jake or Al spend in the past, only two minutes elapse in current time.  Stay in the past for a year, come back, and it's only two minutes later.  Jake and Al have aged that one year, but nothing else has.

Al shows all this to Jake for a reason... Al is dying of cancer, and he has a plan in mind. He wants Jake to cross back over to 1958 and live the next five years with a single purpose: to prevent Lee Harvey Oswald from assassinating John F. Kennedy. He believes that many of the problems of today can be traced back to that pivotal event, and he wants to change history at that point in time. He leaves Jake a detailed notebook on Oswald's life and movements up to the point of the shooting, and Jake needs to make sure he doesn't do anything in that five year period to alter Oswald's life and erase the point in time where he can stop Kennedy's death.  But as Jake finds out, "the past is obdurate", and it will work at making sure that history plays out as intended with no interference.  And the bigger the historical change, the harder the past will work at preventing it.

Normally, a time travel story seems to play out along the same lines. Person goes back in time, inadvertently does something to affect the future, and/or meets him/herself along the way.  You could argue that the basics of 11/22/63 are the same, in that a person is going back in time to change or prevent something. But the stakes are higher here, in that Jake has to decide whether or not to spend the next five years of his life pursuing something that may or may not happen if he makes mistakes along the way. He also has to right some wrongs and figure out how best to prevent certain people from acting. He could kill them early, but that might put him in jail with no way to return to the portal to get back to 2011. Or what if the conspiracy theories were true, and Oswald was set-up to take the fall? Killing Oswald wouldn't prevent Kennedy's death. What I found even more mind-bending was what happened when he tried to prevent an accident that put someone in a wheelchair back in 1958. He prevented a stray bullet from paralyzing a woman, and returned to 2011 to find that she had lived a very successful life as a fully-functional adult. But once he went back through the portal, everything from 1958 forward reset, and she was again in a wheelchair in 2011. Even though the person has no knowledge of how history changed for them, does that still make Jake responsible for returning her to a life of paralysis again?  And finally, can you be sure that regardless of how bad things may seem right now, changing a major event in history will really make things better 50 years later?

King pulled off a great novel in 11/22/63. While I thought it was perhaps a bit slow at times when he was shadowing Oswald in the 18 or so months leading up to the assassination, the mental and moral quandaries more than made up for it. I really need to rethink my slowness in reading new King novels, as I'd be a happy reader if I always had material like this to read during my down times.

Disclosure:
Obtained From: Library
Payment: Borrowed

02/12/2012

The Companion

Category Everything Else
The Companion

Never far way, the companion follows.
An unwelcome traveler, tracking my steps.
I know the shadow is there, but I never know where.
I run fast, but not always fast enough.
I'm caught, and the shadow surrounds me.
All is darkness, direction is lost.
I know light exists outside the shadow,
but how deep is the darkness?
Will I break out into light with the next step,
or will the journey out of the dark be long?
I'll keep moving, keep hoping that the next step...
... will bring light.

02/12/2012

Book Review - Curse of The Narrows: The Halifax Disaster of 1917 by Laura M. Mac Donald

Category Book Review Laura M. Mac Donald Curse of The Narrows: The Halifax Disaster of 1917
A picture named M2

I'm always amazed when I run across a major event or disaster that I've never heard about before. That happened last year when I was on a cruise that had a stop in Halifax. It was there that I learned about the 1917 Halifax explosion that nearly leveled the town. To get more information (and based on the recommendation of a friend), I went to the library and picked up Curse of The Narrows: The Halifax Disaster of 1917 by Laura M. Mac Donald.  It's not an easy read due to the overwhelming amount of information, but it definitely gives you the complete story behind an explosion that wasn't surpassed until the first atomic bomb was dropped in the 1940s.

A bit of history... The port of Halifax was a critical Canadian port both for commerce and the war effort.  It was always crowded with ships getting ready to make the journey to Europe.  On December 6th, 1917, a collision occurred between the Imo and the Mont Blanc in an area of the harbor known as The Narrows.  A collision between two ships would normally be something that would be cleared away and promptly forgotten. Unfortunately, this was not normal. The Mont Blanc was packed with high explosives, and the contents ignited once the ship grounded itself on the waterfront.  The ship was vaporized, the blast leveled the buildings in the town, and the tsumani created by the explosion flooded another portion of the town. The death and devastation was incredible, but it wasn't over. That night, a blizzard hit the area, cutting off Halifax from the outside world.  The few messages that made it out started a relief effort that went as far south as Boston. To this day, there are ceremonies that commemorate the bond between Boston and Halifax that was forged during that disaster.

Mac Donald has written a book that could be considered the definitive resource on the Halifax disaster.  She records an incredible level of detail for what happened pre- and post-explosion.  In addition to the facts, she also adds analysis for what decisions and actions contributed to the catastrophic result.  While the level of detail is invaluable for fully understanding what actually happened, it tends to make the book harder to read as a flowing story. After the explosion occurs, much of the narrative moves around to the various aid stations and hospitals. Much like the doctors and nurses, it's hard not to become somewhat numb to the level of injuries and death that was faced in the first week after the explosion.  As such, a bit of scanning starts to happen after a while.  It's not the fault of the writer, necessarily. It's more just the overwhelming tragedy of the destruction...

If you have any interest in the Halifax disaster, this is the book that you need to read.  I don't think it's a "can't put it down" type of read, but you'll know everything you need to know about the event when you're done.

Disclosure:
Obtained From: Library
Payment: Borrowed

02/12/2012

Book Review - How Do You Kill 11 Million People?: Why the Truth Matters More Than You Think by Andy Andrews

Category Book Review Andy Andrews How Do You Kill 11 Million People?: Why the Truth Matters More Than You Think
A picture named M2

How Do You Kill 11 Million People by Andy Andrews is one of those books that, on the surface, has a title that seemingly begs to get people riled up.  The mind quickly goes to politics, ethics, religion, or a myriad of other issues that cause instant controversy and division in today's society. But if you take a step back and clear your mind, the message here is one that is true and transcends labels that we place on people and groups.  In short... how do you kill 11 million people?

Lie to them.

Andrews goes back to World War II and the Holocaust to illustrate his point. After the fact, we tend to look back and wonder how people let such things happen. Even more astounding, why did the victims willing allow themselves to be led to slaughter with little resistance? It was all centered around lies. Each small lie was explained in such a way as to make it sound as if the actions were for their own protection. Once that lie was accepted and implemented, it provided the base for the next one, and the next one. You don't go from citizen to extermination camp in one step. But your area of the town can be surrounded by barbed wire "for your protection." Bribes are accepted to "improve" the living conditions, although it is only temporary. Transport to better living areas are necessary to protect you from advancing troops. Cattle cars and overcrowding are necessary to move you to the new areas as quickly as possible. And with your full cooperation, you willingly endure the hellish ride to your new "home"... Auschwitz... Treblinka... Dachau...

And the lie is complete.

11 Million People is a very short book.  Even listed at 112 pages, the core message is less than half of that.  You could argue that this is really a longer blog post and not a book. I'd be hard-pressed to disagree, except the message is too important to be buried in yet another online article that many would never see.  Andrews is very clear that he does not want this to be a pro- or anti- message attached to any cause. Instead, it's a core observation about governments, regardless of party or label, and what can happen when the population chooses to forego critical thinking and fails to question the actions being taken.  

I don't like to use the words "must read", but it does apply here. We are currently living in a time where there is a disconnect between what is being told to us by our leaders and what is really happening. If we choose to blindly follow without question, we stand a very good chance of going down paths that we don't want to traverse.

Disclosure:
Obtained From: Publisher
Payment: Free

02/06/2012

Would you like to win a free copy of the IBM Sametime 8.5.2 Administration Guide?

Category IBM/Lotus
A picture named M2

Would you like to win a free copy of the IBM Sametime 8.5.2 Administration Guide?

Well, all you need to do is visit
IBM Sametime 8.5.2 Administration Guide and tell us the one feature that makes you want to own this book using the comments section on this blog entry. Make sure to enter your email address, so that I can in touch with you. Two individuals who have mentioned the best reasons will be provided with an e-copy each.

This drawing will run through February 19th 20th, and we'll select two winners at that point.


So, start your engines and submit those reasons!

----------------------------

Update 2012/02/21 - Thanks to everyone who participated in our contest. The two winners are Tim E. Brown and Albert Buendia.

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Thomas "Duffbert" Duff

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