Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Review: The Art of Lean Software Development: A Practical and Incremental Approach

Authors: Curt Hibbs, Steve Jewett, and Mike Sullivan Format: Paperback, 142 pages Publisher: O'Reilly Media, Inc.; 1st edition (February 2, 2009) ISBN-10: 0596517319 ISBN-13: 978-0596517311 What is Lean Software Development? Fortunately, that's an OK question to ask if you are reading this book. It's not written for developers who are well versed in "lean" or "agile" development. That's good for the rest of us. For instance, in my "day job" we are slowly moving towards a more Agile development model. I suppose if some folks around here weren't all that sure what "agile" meant, reading up on it would be helpful. That's the sort of role this book hopes to fill relative to "lean", with the understanding that the "pro-lean subculture" is well associated with Agile development. The book is lean. I mean that in the plain meaning of the word. It's a short book at only 142 pages and each of its nine chapters is less than 20 pages long. The idea, according to the Preface, is to avoid "padding our chapters with useless fluff". Like a string held taught between two tin cans or a tightly focused laser beam, the book attempts to describe the shortest distance between two points; between start and destination. Actually, the last sentence in the last chapter states, "Remember, Lean is a journey, not a destination", so I guess my review is already somewhat inaccurate. "Lean" then is the string or the laser beam. As you may have guessed by now, the process of Lean development is to make software development..."lean". That is, it's what government is always proposing to do; to use less resources and produce superior results more effectively (I'll avoid my usual commentary on the whole "stimulus package" theory of "lean" or "anti-lean" in its case). The first chapter in the book establishes why lean is a good idea and where it came from. In order for you to be interested in the book, the authors must first sell the reader on the desirability of lean development. The use of the term "subculture" a few paragraphs back was not really a euphemism. Lean development even has it's own "glossary" of sorts, which is also presented in Chapter 1. Like any philosophy, it comes with it's own "mindset" and "world view" relative to software development (and beyond). Considering its Japanese origins, the ideal of group cooperation in any endeavour is both espoused in the lean development vision and within the pages of this book. Certainly the authors wrote their book with that philosophy in mind and it makes sense. The short definition of Lean development is to reduce a series of tasks to the simplest set of steps possible. Why use two words to say something when you can do it with one? At the same time, accuracy and making the product work can't be sacrificed for the sake of simplicity of design or speed of delivery. It's interesting that one of the values of Lean development is respecting people (which is also a very Japanese value). You wouldn't normally think of the humanity of software development, but coders are human too, as are the rest of the employees of any software development outfit, and as well as their customers. That also works (at least in theory) across the boundaries between management and line staff; hiring people who know what they're doing and then trusting that they'll do their jobs. I know a few "micromanagers" who could benefit from reading at least this part of the book (no one I've worked for recently, thankfully). At this juncture (or before), you may have asked yourself, "What's the difference between agile and lean"? Apparently, not much, according to the authors, at least on the surface of the goals. Both philosophies and methods claim to do what all managers want to do with their companies; make a superior product more efficiently, using less time, personnel, and money. The underlying "mindset" is where the two paths diverge. Agile is more focused around the specific process of software development, while Lean casts a wider net and includes software development within the larger business context. The book functions as a beginner's primer on Lean software development, describing the philosophy and basic design of Lean development. It's not easy to describe a philosophy using a lean process since the concept of philosophy tends to be somewhat long winded (not unlike myself). The book is sprinkled with little real-life examples, like bread crumbs, from the lives of the authors, briefly illustrating the points to be made along the trail of the book's pages. That's good, because such content doesn't easily lend itself to longer tomes, such as the 430 pages of Shore and Warden's The Art of Agile Development (it's a good book, but you have to really want or need to read it). The benefit of the last chapter, "What's Next?" is that it allows the book to be "lean" and at the same time, doesn't leave the reader hanging in mid-air. Actually, it's the resources listed in the Appendix that shows the reader the roadmap to the next part of the territory, based in the book's bibliography. Despite the "Using Code Examples" section in the Preface, this is a book about concept and not about mechanics. In other words, there are no code examples and no supplementary website for the book. The book is a brief template to be applied to your actual practice, not the practice itself. I can take philosophy in limited doses before I must return to my bolts and my wrenches. Fortunately, Hibbs, Jewett, and Sullivan had people like me in mind when they wrote this book. If you are a manager who is considering moving to a more focused software development model and is wondering if "lean" is for you and your company, it wouldn't hurt to have your first introduction to Lean software development be The Art of Lean Software Development: A Practical and Incremental Approach. At least you will find out fast if you want to explore that path more completely after sailing through the book.

Monday, February 23, 2009

Review: Python Web Development with Django

Authors: Jeff Forcier, Paul Bissex, and Wesley Chun Format: Paperback, 408 pages Publisher: Addison-Wesley Professional; 1st edition (November 3, 2008) ISBN-10: 0132356139 ISBN-13: 978-0132356138 I have something of a relationship with both Python and Django, the latter because I use Django more or less regularly to contribute my portion of an application (which shall remain nameless for the moment) that my company ("my" in the sense that I work there, not that I actually own anything) is developing. I'm already sold on the relative simplicity and power of Python based on my attempts to hammer away with the language, so this book, at least as far as the topic is concerned, is everything I could ask for. But can the same be said for the content of the book? I was going to say "first things first" and then proceed to the target audience for the book, but there's another point to make before that. The little "button" on the front cover says "Covers Django 1.0". I visited the Django Project and on the download page (as of this morning, February 23rd) it says, "The latest official version is 1.0.2. Here's how to get it". Assuming you want to use the latest version of Django, having a book that presents the latest information (well, as recent as any print documentation can be) is an enormous advantage. As a small aside, the download page also states, "Python version 2.3 or higher" is required, so you don't have to be using latest version of the non-backward compatible Python 3 to use the latest version of Django (of course "or higher" can be interpreted more than one way). The second page of the Preface does something cool, if you aren't sure how much of this book applies to you. There's a little diagram that outlines the four skill/experience levels for readers, and which chapters are relevant to you depending on which level applies to you. "Brand New to Django and Python" starts you off at Chapter 1 which is to be expected, but some Python experience (but no Django) gets you going, starting at Chapter 2. Some experience with both puts you beginning at Chapter 4, and advanced learners can skip ahead to Chapter 11. At least as far as the authors' predictions go, this book has something for everyone. The book has a website, which is more or less expected these days. contains "auxiliary material" that is referenced in different sections of the book. Click the "Material for Readers" link and you're taken to links called "Extra resources" and "Source code downloads"; the meaning of the latter link being quite obvious. The page that becomes available by clicking the former link is a "linkfest" of Python and Django resources of every conceivable type, even if they are only barely related to the topic at hand (such as links to the official Firefox, jQuery, and Vim websites). However, back to the book. As previously mentioned, this book has something for everyone, even if you aren't familiar with Python. I say "everyone" in the context some people who have some coding experience and frankly, I wouldn't recommend this book as your first experience with Python if you hope to really learn the language. As author Wesley Chun can attest, entire books have been written on Python, so please don't assume that a single chapter will tell you all you'll need to know. That said, it should teach the experienced programmer what they'll need to know as far as a foundation for working with Django. I do recommend picking up a Python tome of some sort to strengthen that foundation, however. The 56 pages comprising Chapter 1 are just enough to whet the appetite. Chapter 2 is aptly named, "Django for the Impatient: Building a Blog". Most people learning a new technology, myself included, want to get at it right away. Few things are more frustrating than picking up a book expecting to learn to actually do something, and then discovering you have to wade through 200 to 300 pages of concept and theory before you learn to even say "Hello World!". In fact, this chapter almost literally has the reader "hitting the ground running" by putting him or her on a "deadline" to see how fast they can build a simple blog using Django. You've only got 19 pages, so you'd better hurry. Only when you've accomplished this task are you ready (according to the book) to really get started using Django as Chapter 3, "Starting Out" testifies to. You might think it's a step back, because the chapter is mostly concept, but hopefully you'll still be basking in the glow of building that first blog with Django, so moving through a concept chapter won't be as much of a chore. With the foundation now firmly laid, the book proceeds to more in-depth information. The book tries to create a balance between concept and practice and it's a delicate balance indeed. I'm not sure it's entirely successful, but it does its best. If you're looking for a simple "how to" book, this might be a disappointment. The book presents both the "how" and the "why" of Python and Django. Also, although some "beginner" information is presented early in the book, as I said before, don't let this book be your first and only Python learning experience. Without some additional background, you are going to become quickly lost as you advance through the latter pages of this text. At only 408 pages including the appendix sections, you dare not blink while reading this book. All of the relevant information is present and accounted for, but there's no fluff or padding to cushion you. Section Five is complete with a number of "Appendices" (or "Appendixes", take your pick) including "Command Line Basics", the obligatory "Installing and Running Django", and so on. This should help the beginner become reoriented, if they've lost their course somewhere in the book. If you have some programming and web development background, even if Python and Django are new to you, this book should be very helpful, as long as you can tolerate it's laser-like focus and intensity. If you have Python experience, so much the better. If you find yourself slowly getting in over your head, try reading books like Chun's Core Python Programming (2nd Ed) or Mark Lutz's Learning Python before proceeding with the Django book. Whatever you do though, have fun.

Friday, February 20, 2009

The Alois and Marie Goldmann Scholarship

Jane Freund, Owner and President at Freundship Press LLC, posted the following in the Boise State Alumni group discussion board at LinkedIn:
I am asking for your help in spreading the word about the Alois and Marie Goldmann scholarship, which is named for my paternal great-grandparents who made the ultimate sacrifice with their decision to send their son, my father George Freund, to America. Here are more details: Alois and Marie Goldmann raised their orphaned grandson, George Freund, in Vienna from 1936 to 1938. After the Anschluss, they sent him to America to be raised by an aunt and uncle. They remained behind in Czechoslovakia. The Germans placed them in Theresienstadt Ghetto. In 1944 the Goldmanns were shipped to Poland to the Auschwitz concentration camp where they were murdered immediately after arrival. The scholarship is open to graduating Idaho high school seniors or home school graduates who will be attending an Idaho college or university in the fall of 2009. To preserve the memory of the Goldmanns and other Holocaust victims, applicants are asked to write an essay or formal research paper on the Holocaust. The submittal should not be general but must deal with some specific aspect of the Holocaust ofthe applicant's own choosing. The application deadline is April 1, 2009 and this year's scholarship will be approximately $1,200. Please help spread the word about this scholarship by sharing this information with people whom you think would be interested! If you have any questions or would like a copy of the scholarship application, send an e-mail to me (Jane Freund) at goldmannscholarship at or visit the Idaho Community Foundation website at Thanks so much! Jane Freund PS -- I am also available to come to schools and talk about the Holocaust, Dad's story and the scholarship so please feel free to contact me if you or somebody you know is interested.
A very worthy cause. I couldn't find such a wonderful description of the scholarship on the site, so I decided to post the info on my blog, then pass it along via other online conduits. In one sense, it's an "Idaho only" piece of data, but it has implications that reach much farther. Thanks for the "heads up", Jane.

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Review: David Pogue's Digital Photography: The Missing Manual

Author: David Pogue (who else?) Format: Paperback, 304 pages Publisher: Pogue Press (January 22, 2009) ISBN-10: 0596154038 ISBN-13: 978-0596154035 Update: March 10, 2009 I never made it to the Pacific Ocean during my trip to California, but I did take my wee digital camera to the Capital Street Bridge that crosses the Boise River near BSU. I posted the pics to Picasa just so you can view my first efforts. I didn't do anything to the photos besides a bit of cropping, so what you see is what you get. If you're interested, you can post comments (be nice, these are my first photos in a very long time) and suggestions. Capital Street Bridge in Winter. Peace. I'll admit that I've used a digital camera on occasion. That's probably an odd admission, since taking photographs with a digital camera is about the same thing as driving with a car these days. Let me explain. I haven't really been "into" taking pictures for quite sometime, even at "family events" or on other occasions when it would be normal for people to take pictures. I don't vacation often (life as a contract worker, though I've got a "day job" currently), so I don't go to places that are unusual enough or spectacular enough to inspire me to record them on film...uh, in flash memory. By the way, that's the other reason I don't take many pictures these days. "Back in the day" as they say, I was very much into photography. Keep in mind this was back in the day of the 35mm SAR (single action reflex) camera. This was back in the day when Kodak still made B & W paper and film (remember "film"?). This was also back in the day when I actually went places and saw things that were (in my humble opinion) worthy of recording on film. I didn't even have to go far, because in those days, I could "see" a lot more. That is, I could see things in my ordinary world that could become art, using the right perspective (and the right filters, and the right film, and the right...). Somewhere along the line, I just got too busy, or I got too committed to practicalities, or I got too cynical. I stopped looking at the world as if it were art, and started wearing my blinders. Oh sure, the occasional sunset still looked "pretty" and I'd sometimes see a bit of loveliness in the world here or there, but then the next second would pass, and I'd have to be getting back to the task at hand (whatever that task might be). My view of the world would once again become mundane and ordinary, and "the vision" would be corked back into its bottle; tossed somewhere into the depths of what used to be my imagination. My wife bought a digital camera several years ago. I remember being surprised, because we had a couple of small film cameras and she's not the sort of person to buy something "just because". There has to be a demonstrated need for the item. I think the film cameras were getting on in years and there was something she wanted to record (probably someone else's backyard...she's into landscaping, or wants to be). Anyway, this camera came into our...her possession. I helped her figure out how to download pictures from the camera to her PC the first time, but that's about all I had to do with it. Recently, I had reason to start creating a number of social networking sites (the original reason is still a secret, but I'll be able to talk about it soon...don't worry...nothing bad) and needed a "profile picture". I'm nothing to look at. In the photos of my son's wedding last May, I looked a bit like a cross between "Lurch" from the Addams Family and Night of the Living Dead. I needed to figure out a way to take a portrait (by myself) and make it look not too scary. With the aid of the digital camera and the bathroom mirror (the missus was out that evening) I managed to create something passable. I "desaturated" the image using GIMP, modified the brightness and contrast a bit, and I was set. Rather proud of my effort, something long dormant stirred within me. I periodically get email notices for different books being published, inviting me to review them. David Pogue's Digital Photography: The Missing Manual appeared in my inbox. I figured "why not"? Then it arrived, and I remembered the digital camera and started wondering if the dead could be resurrected. Yeah, I've encountered Flickr and Picassa and such, and sampled their wares. I thumbed through an old National Geographic at the barber's...uh, "hair stylist's" recently, and spent quite a bit of time going over the photos of the South Sandwich Islands. Was I really still interested in photography? Did I really have time for a hobby? Well, it wouldn't hurt to look at the book. Pogue's book, like most of the Missing Manual series, is written for the beginner. In fact, the first chapter is dedicated to describing the different digital cameras on the market (and there are tons), and the second chapter is a list of the features to be found on said-cameras. I'm pretty sure I still remember the basics of composing a shot in the view finder (chapter 3), but the information's in the book, if I needed a refresher. As I worked my way through the book, I started to get depressed and remembered why I wasn't attracted to digital cameras. They were too easy and too hard. The too easy is like what blogging has done to writing. Everything is instantaneous. Access is automatic. Anything you happen to be thinking of, at anytime, can be translated to text, with graphics added with just a bit more effort, and published to the web for all (potentially) the world to see. Where was the effort? Where was the editing? Where was the gatekeeper to define which piece of writing is "worthy" to see the light of day? All this applies to "instant" digital photography, especially with places like Flickr, that can allow the photographer (and his or her grandmother) to publish to the web anything they can point and click at. I pushed my mental "reset" button and tried to pull myself out of "cynical" mode. After all, I know professional photographers who use digital cameras and edit in Photoshop, so it can't be a lost cause. There are blogs actually worth reading (and I hope mine is one of them), and I've used a microwave oven for decades, so I know that not all "instant gratification" is bad (though my "jury" is still out on cell phone cameras, which Pogue's book covers). I moved on. I started to see parallels between Pogue's book and a book written by Akkana Peck for Apress: Beginning GIMP: From Novice to Professional (2nd Ed) (I reviewed this book for the hardcopy version of Linux Pro Magazine, but due to the publication cycle, you won't be able to read it until the March 2009 edition). I really like GIMP, and though I've never used Photoshop, from what I know of PS (besides the fact that it's overpriced), GIMP seems to be able to do most of the same tasks. I'm reasonably satisfied that Pogue's and Peck's books could work in concert in my life ("My life"? Did I just say that?). Pogue's book is a reintroduction to basic photography for those of us who once loved the art (even though I was hardly an expert) and have let it lay fallow for several decades. If you have never done anything more with your digital camera than "point and click", Pogue teaches you how to do more. If you've never purchased such a camera, the beginning chapters in the book will teach you what to look for in terms of features that will meet your needs. It is a beginner's book. If you are wanting to get into serious digital photography, this book will only take you so far, but it will get you started. That is, it's very much like a person wanting to learn how to paint; you need to do enough still lifes before you get on to "art". You need to lay the foundation for your skill sets before you can build up. David Pogue's book functions like that foundation, or at least shows you how to construct it. Appendix A: Where to Go From Here will speak to you if you want to take digital photography beyond your vacation pictures. It provides various online and print resources you can access and mentions Photoshop (but not GIMP; shame on you, David) as the photo editing software of choice. Appendix B: The Top Ten Tips of All Time is the book in a nutshell, in terms of distilling down all the advice given in the book on how to take a shot into just a few pages. I think the resistance I've experienced around wanting to review this book, and getting anywhere near my wife's modest little digital camera, isn't that I'm afraid of taking pictures with modern technology. It's more that I'm afraid I'm going to start caring about taking photographs again. I've already got plenty of creative tasks on my plate and plenty more practical tasks, all competing for the same 24 hours in each day (and I do have to sleep sometimes, though that too is occasionally elusive). Do I recommend Pogue's digital photography book? Actually, yes. If you are a beginner, either at buying such a device or knowing what to do with it, I think Pogue has produced a document "worthy" of your time and attention. Like most of what comes out of this series, the writing is solid and accessible. Technically, the information is accurate, and Pogue writes from the perspective of someone who also loves to photograph (which is probably why he wrote the book, rather than commissioning another author to do so). I know this review has been more editorial than anything else, but this is one book that squarely collided with my personality and my personal history. No book review, or any other sort of writing for that matter (certainly the popular news media) is without bias, so when I review any book, I review it from my point of view. For David Pogue's Digital Photography: The Missing Manual though, that point of view was a little closer to "home" than most. Unabashed plug time. A friend of mine named Karen (I don't know if she wants me to use her last name on my blog) has breathed new life and new passion into her love of technology by discovering Photoshop (she feels sorry for me because I prefer GIMP). I've been following her progress on twitter with satisfaction and have noticed that some of the tutorials on her blog Pursuing Photoshop have been picked up by some of the more noteworthy Photoshop online venues. She's also been known to hang out at the forums, if you're interested. If Photoshop is your photo editor of choice (and Adobe has as big a grip on that market as Microsoft Windows has on the home desktop space), you can't go wrong visiting those online resources. For those readers out there (all three of you) who are more open source minded like me, you will want to get your hands on a copy of Akkana Peck's Beginning GIMP: From Novice to Professional (2nd Ed). I won't do the review of her book here for the reasons I've already stated, but the long and the short of it is, her's is the best GIMP book on the market, as well as being the most up to date. It will go well with everything Pogue has written in his book and, as far as the photo editing piece; GIMP offers a more "reasonably priced" alternative to Photoshop. Will I use Pogue's book to bring back the dead? Well, the corpse is stirring, but whether or not it will emerge from its tomb, only time will tell. I'm supposed to take a four day trip to Oceanside after my daughter-in-law has her first baby (my first grandchild), so who knows? I haven't seen the Pacific ocean in a long time.

Monday, February 16, 2009

Spelling, Algebra, and When to Turn Off the Computer

Update 2009/02/18: Tim O'Reilly commented on this blog entry, and it looks like I didn't read his original comments well enough. I appreciate him stopping by my humble abode and feel it necessary to include his comments here.
"I think you missed the point of my "change happens" blog post, if you thought my reply was "just get used to it." In fact, I was writing about resilience in the face of change. And what you're talking about - stepping away from the computer when needed - is one way to become more resilient in the face of change. We should always be wary of becoming too dependent on our tools. FWIW, I also published the book you recommend at the end, Steve Talbott's Devices of the Soul, as well as his much earlier The Future Does Not Compute. So I really don't know why you thought that my "change happens" piece was contrary to your thinking".
Mea culpa. Update 2009/02/17: I saw this Calvin and Hobbes cartoon this morning and thought it the perfect "counterpoint" to my article. I just proves that doing it "the old fashioned way" has pitfalls, at least when your tutor is a tiger. LOL Original Article: Tracey Pilone's recent blog at O', The Intersection of Algebra and Technology got me thinking about one of my "soapbox" issues; the use of computing in education. One of the biggest proponents of computers in schools is the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation which has provided millions of dollars in technology to education, from Elementary schools to Universities over the years. But is this all a good idea? As Pilone, co-author of Head First Algebra (O'Reilly, December 2008) points out in her blog, there was a great deal of discussion between the authors (her and her spouse) and the publishers as to how much technology should be injected into the book. In other words, should graphing calculators be required or at least "allowed" in working through the book's problems? The ultimate answer was "no", which was a relief to me (I don't what to have to go out and buy one again). The Pilones had grown up and learned Algebra in a world without graphing calculators, and certainly generations of mathematicians worked through Algebra without such aids. Learning to do it yourself has advantages (and yes, calculators are "allowed" to perform simple math calculations). Pilone also mentioned a Duke University study, Scaling the Digital Divide which "surprisingly" concluded (not a surprise to me) that ...the impact of home computer use is, if anything, negative on school achievement. That means that there may be benefits to learning language and mathematics before introducing technology into the mix". I have an experience that illustrates this in a very simple way. I'm known as the dictionary of my family. Whenever anyone wants to know how to spell a word or the definition of a word, they ask me. Why? Because 9 times out of 10, I probably know the answer. I grew up in a world without the Internet, online dictionaries, and spell checkers. I still have hard copies of a Dictionary and a Thesaurus that I consult when I want to learn something about words (and since I'm a writer, I refer to them often). Since I grew up with this practice, without realizing it, I had memorized a large number of word spellings and definitions, so I've become something of an asset to my kids and my spouse (and to myself). There are words that always "defeat" me, such as "Caribbean" and "Mediterranean", but for the most part, I'm pretty good at not having to use "high tech" to figure out how to spell (I suppose a hard copy dictionary could be considered "low tech"). The idea of putting computers in schools is simple and understandable. Computers are *the* tool of the 21st century for accessing information in the "Information Age". I say "computers" using the widest possible definition, including hand held devices and any hardware or software utility used to store, collect, organize, and transmit data. I'm not saying to pull all the PCs out of the classroom and to burn down all of the computer labs at your local university. I am saying though, that we sadly teach our children to use a calculator to do simple addition, subtraction, multiplication, and division to the point that they can't even make change at a grocery store and they always assume the cash register (or whatever it's called these days) is right (even though it's not). This practice is not doing our children and future generations any favors. Tim O'Reilly wrote an article for his blog yesterday called Change Happens and communicates the idea that, since change is inevitable, we shouldn't resist it. I replied to his tweet on twitter that I didn't think all change was good and got back the standard "party line" that it's inevitable, more or less saying "why fight it"? This makes me wonder if O'Reilly bothered to read Pilone's blog (which after all, is published on, since it doesn't seem to line up with his perspectives. Yes, change is inevitable and some change is beneficial, but not all change should be embraced. No, the future won't be like we imagine and the future won't always be good, but that doesn't mean we're helpless in the face of change. Change is caused for the most part, by the intervention of people in the world. It's not an elemental force we are helpless to affect, such as a hurricane. We can steer the course of change. All we have to do is care enough to make the effort. If we want to take control of our education, our understanding of the world around us, and the direction of our lives, we can do small, simple things to make a difference. It can come down to something as straightforward as learning and memorizing the spelling and definitions of words, and working out algebra problems using a pencil and paper. Tools are instruments to be used by people; we are not to be used by them, nor should our lives be dictated by them, simply because they were invented and simply because they exist. Again, I'm not talking about "killing" the PC or Mac. After all, I make my living documenting technology in a number of different ways, including being a technical writer for a software firm, writing books and book reviews about technology, and a column for Linux Pro Magazine. I'm not talking about biting the hand that feeds me. I am talking about making conscious and calculated decisions on when to use technology and when to use less complicated (and less convenient) tools. Your brain is still the best "technology" that you'll ever have for solving problems and making decisions. Try putting away the cell phone and Kindle and picking up a book once in awhile. You'll be surprised at how much you learn. By the way, Harlan Ellison spoke somewhat to this point in his short story Jeffty is Five, which I read many years ago and which remains one of my favorite Ellison works. An excellent book on precisely this topic is Steve Talbott's Devices of the Soul: Battling for Our Selves in an Age of Machines. Reading these works is worth definitely worth your time.

Friday, February 13, 2009

Review: The Principles of Successful Freelancing

Author: Miles Burke Format: Paperback, 200 pages Publisher: SitePoint; illustrated edition (December 28, 2008) ISBN-10: 0980455243 ISBN-13: 978-0980455243 When I think of SitePoint, I think about books on topics such as HTML, CSS, and various programming languages. I also reviewed a SitePoint book on project management, so I know they can step outside of that "sphere" on occasion. On the other hand, what does a book on freelancing have to do with the technical subjects normally put out by this publisher? I was a tad surprised to find out that Toby Somerville, one of this book's technical editors, has been "a web applications architect and a freelance web developer". Maybe this book isn't as "generic" as it sounds. Author Miles Burke has been a web designer for over a decade and created his own web company a few years back. Perhaps, with the background of some of the "players" being what it is, the book will focus on freelancing relative to web design and development, rather than for other fields. I suppose I should take a step back from this review and explain that, for a number of years, I worked as a freelance technical writer, author, and editor. It wasn't entirely by choice, since people in my field don't often find "in-house" jobs that pay a salary with benefits, but you take the work that you're offered. That said, now that I have a "day job" that I'm well satisfied with, I continue to pursue other projects, both to develop multiple income streams and to maintain my professional flexibility. I should be well suited to review Burke's text. According to the blurb in the front matter, this book was written for people who want to freelance and like it. The target audience includes someone currently in a "day job" who wants to "be their own boss" (and all the headaches that entails) or someone who has recently graduated and is concerned that getting a job won't be all that easy to do. I know first hand that freelancing isn't an easy lifestyle. Burke's book is intended to address the struggling freelancer and organize their efforts into a career. Another part of the blurb confirmed that Burke wrote his book specifically with web designers and developers in mind, but that the principles should apply to just about any job-type that can be done freelance. Interestingly, the book starts out with a definition of the term "freelance", complete with references to Sir Walter Scott's Ivanhoe. I would have thought if a history lesson was in order, it would be about the modern development of the freelance career model. The Ivanhoe "medieval mercenary" reference was OK, though. Kind of makes the freelancer feel like a "Ronin" in feudal Japan (notice my tongue is now firmly in my cheek). The book reminded me somewhat of the SitePoint Project Management book I mentioned before. Essentially, although the book's content can be applied to all freelance careers, the thrust of the book examines applying the freelance "principle" in a technical context. Another way to look at it is, the book is most aimed at the technical person who wants to apply their skill sets to the role of freelancer. The project management book was very similar, with the technical person having an eye on the role of project manager. With all that in mind, it's appropriate for this text to be reviewed and presented in various technical venues such as this blog, but for those of you who don't know HTML from CSS, you can still get plenty out of what's being presented. Burke does dig into his own experiences and references the company he founded by example, so he isn't speaking just "in theory". There are also "case studies" at the end of each chapter, citing real world examples of freelancers. The real value I see in this book is that it organizes the topics a freelancer has to consider and act upon to build such a career path. It's not that it would be impossible to come up with the same information on your own after doing your research, it's just that Burke puts a large amount of the research results between this book's covers. You'll still need to do more work developing a plan that relates to your specific skills, goals, and career field. This book can't be all things to all freelancers. It can just give you a leg up, so to speak, as to what you are facing and how to deal with those issues. Another advantage this book presents is as a way to help the reader decide if freelancing is for him or her. Some people, especially after a bad day at the office, might overly romanticize the idea of "being your own boss" (think of the "Ronin" analogy I used before). It sounds really appealing after you've been "chewed a new one" by your manager over one thing or another. Burke's book brings it down to Earth and lays out the nuts and bolts of what freelancing takes. Freelancing's not for everyone. For the cost of this book though, you can get enough practical advice to help you decide if you want to pursue a freelance career or part-time freelance gig. You don't have to step into it blind. While Burke's book is good, I don't think it can take the place of doing a lot of the footwork yourself. You're still going to have to see what the demand is for your skill sets in the freelance market in your area, determine the specifics of where you need to pump up your training, and do the rest of the analysis that will tell you if what you have to offer is significantly valued in your environment. You'll need to perform that work to see if what you've got will pay off for you as a freelancer. Of course, this book will give you some very good places to start, and a foundation on which to build your data and your conclusions. Be glad Miles Burke wrote this book. It'll save you some steps.

Thursday, February 12, 2009

Biden at Special Olympics but NO National Media

A few days ago, I saw a story on one of the local Boise TV stations about the media coverage for the Special Olympics. While there were news agencies represented from all over the world and from the local Boise area, not a single U.S. news agency was represented. Not one. Of course, something like this would attract the local news stations, and I'm gratified that news agencies from across the globe found this event worth their time and energy and worth it to their audiences, but apparently CNN, NBC, CBS, ABC, and the rest of the popular American media outlets didn't consider it "news worthy". When I heard that Vice President Biden was scheduled to make an appearance at the Special Olympics today, I was sure (along with plenty of other people here) that the major U.S. news agencies would be coming along with him. In fact, it would have been pretty stunning if the news media didn't follow the VP around whenever he travelled to a public event. Guess what? Air Force 2 arrived. Vice President Biden arrived. No, I mean NO (yes, I'm yelling) National media accompanied him. I don't really care if CNN or whoever slaps Boise, Idaho in the face, but I do care that they have slapped all of these terrific athletes around. Heck, I saw news coverage on NBC today that covered the preparations for the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver, and that event won't happen for another year! The Special Olympics are happening right now! Unfortunately, my one voice can't reach any of these organizations or their decision makers to register my outrage. I'm not a "news worthy" person myself, so even if I could get them to hear me, I doubt that they'd care. Obviously they don't care about the participants in the Special Olympics, their challenges, how they've heroically overcome those challenges, and how they've achieved their victories. The other thing that occurs to me is that it may not be the news media in this country that doesn't give a rip, but the citizens of our "fine nation". After all, if the U.S. media thought that the American public was really on fire to learn about the Special Olympics and focused on all of the events being held, they'd have shown up. Maybe we're (Americans) all worried so much about the economy, that we can't be bothered. Maybe if President Obama had shown up, the media and the public would have cared. It's just sad that people and the media don't care about the Special Olympics and these Olympians for their own sake. I don't always have a lot of respect for the popular media and sometimes not for the American people in general. My opinion of both just went down a notch. My heartfelt thanks to all those news agencies that travelled several days and thousands of miles to be here and to report on the Special Olympics. I thank your audiences who must have expressed enough of an interest so that you would come here. Update: Here's a link to local coverage of Biden's visit to the Special Olympics by NBC affiliate station

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Trying out DISQUS

Not sure if I'll stay with this, but I thought I'd try it out and see how/if it works. Actually, it's something of an experiment related to a project.

Tuesday, February 10, 2009 aims to raise $50,000 for the Australian Bushfire Relief Fund

Update: 2009/02/11 Just found out that they've raised $90,000 and upped their goal to $100,000. I'm sure they'll be upping it again by tomorrow! Original Message: This isn't an original piece of content. I'm just passing it along for whoever is interested. I saw the message at The Linux Tutorial. Melbourne, Australia—February 10, 2009: SitePoint ( one of the most visited sites in the world for Web Developers today announced it is donating 100% of the proceeds from a special 5 for the price of 1 book sale of its acclaimed books to the Australian bushfire relief fund. For the next three days, customers can select any five books in PDF format from the SitePoint book catalogue—valued at US$150 —for the special rate of only $29.95. Every dollar raised in this sale will be donated to the Australian bushfire relief fund. “The bushfires are a horrific tragedy that has hit very close to home,” said Mark Harbottle, co-founder of and “Our staff have rallied to help support those gravely affected by these devastating fires – it was their idea to run this promotion and I’m totally behind them. Our aim is to raise $50,000 before the end of this week.” To support the bushfire relief and find additional details on the sale, please see: SitePoint will donate ALL the proceeds from this sale directly to the Red Cross. About SitePoint is a leading online destination for professional web developers, freelancers, and web design firms. The web site reaches 3 million unique visitors per month. Contact: Shayne Tilley Shayne.Tilley at

Monday, February 9, 2009

Review: Head First Web Design

Authors: Ethan Watrall and Jeff Siarto Format: Paperback, 495 pages Publisher: O'Reilly Media, Inc. (January 2, 2009) ISBN-10: 0596520301 ISBN-13: 978-0596520304 I recently reviewed Creating a Web Site: The Missing Manual and thought a review of this Head First book would be in order. While you might say that both of these books cater to beginners who don't have a history of creating and maintaining web site, you can also say that each book caters to its own special audience. Actually, these two books have two different audiences in more than one way. The Head First series, as I mentioned in my review of Head First Algebra, tends to be best used by younger people. A high school age audience is ideal and if you have been diagnosed with the dreaded initials "A-D-H-D", so much the better. All of the pictures, drawings, arrows, puzzles, and other input types are just great if you normally hate sitting still for more than a few minutes at a time reading straight text. However, as I glanced through the front matter of Watrall and Siarto's book, I got a mild shock. They didn't write this text for the "right-at-the-starting-gate" beginner. Specifically, the book assumes you have prior experience with XHTML (the most recent "buzzword" for HTML that conforms to the latest standards) and CSS, plus have some knowledge of PHP, .NET, and/or Ruby on Rails. If you don't fit this description, the publisher recommends picking up a copy of Head First HTML with CSS & XHTML to get started. So just what does this "web design" book teach? The book proposes to take up where designing a static HTML/CSS site leaves off. Specifically, to teach how to design and develop web sites for the professional or the wannebe-professional web designer. Your first clue that this Head First book is different from the rest of its siblings is that it's in color. I know it's an odd detail to mention, but all of the other Head First books I've seen to date have been strictly monochrome. It never occurred to me that color would be an option in this series (unless there's such a book as "Head First Color Digital Photography"). Relative to the audience-type I mentioned before, this isn't the easiest subject to teach, even in the Head First format. Action-oriented readers are doers, not necessarily planners, and designing professional web sites requires a lot of planning. Chapter 1 covers how to storyboard a proposed web site, which is a necessary first step in many artistic projects. This is contrary to the artist who, extending the metaphor, would rather grab a blank canvas and some paints and start spontaneously creating. Of course, using this approach, you don't always know what you'll end up with until it happens. With designing web sites, and particularly for people who are paying you, this isn't always the best option. While the web pages and some of the diagrams are better rendered in color for the sake of this book, I'm not sure that goes for the photos of the actual people (models). They tend to work better, at least for me, when they retain a more monochrome effect. It makes them easier to take, given their lack of surroundings. In fact, as I made my way through more of the book, I realized that I was having trouble shifting back and forth between the reality that color lends to screenshots of web sites and the more "cartoony" feel of the rest of the Head First format. I agree, it's better to "tell this tale" in color rather than monochrome, but it creates another problem. I found myself wondering if the reader, having become at least competent in basic XHTML/CSS and one or more programming languages, might be better served by "graduating" to a more standard web design/development text. I think of the Head First series as a single stepping stone for a person at a particular stage in their cognitive development (which is different than intelligence) that needs information served up in a particular format at this time in their life. Once they progress beyond that developmental milestone, they will be able to tolerate more "standard" information streams. This Head First book comes closer to the border between its realm and the realms covered by those other info streams than I would have expected. My basic assumption though, could be flawed. I have assumed that people "grow out of" needing to have all or most of their information provided the way the Head First series offers learning. On the other hand, how many people actually prefer the "video game" method of learning their entire lives? Is this also a generational difference in learning styles and that I'm on the wrong side of that particular line? No, otherwise, no one in their 20s could learn from any of O'Reilly's "The Definitive Guide" or "Cookbook" series, among others, and I know that's not true. The book might have been better titled "Head First Professional Web Design", since "web design" as a term, covers a wide field. Maybe that's what threw me off. While I, as an individual learner, am not often best served by this series (the Algebra book being the exception), this web design book seems to almost be pulling the audience away from a strict "Head First" learning model and encouraging them to take the next step. The "atypical-ness" of this one Head First book is being reflected in the difficulty I'm having in reviewing it. It's not that the book doesn't teach its subject well, it's just that the book has to bend it's own series format rules in order to do a good job. Could the audience have taken the next step on their own and just learned the same content from a different book? I'm not sure. Maybe the book serves those people who are used to and like the Head First format and don't feel ready to move away from it...even though they are. Is this book a good teacher for its audience? Probably. It just seems that, in order for the authors to teach this topic, they needed to appeal to the audience to stretch beyond what Head First normally offers. That may mean that Head First has an upper limit for what it can teach. As I review more in this series, I'll see if there's a point past which it cannot go.

Thursday, February 5, 2009

Head First Algebra: A Learner's Guide to Algebra

Authors: Tracey Pilone and Dan Pilone Format: Paperback, 559 pages. Publisher: O'Reilly Media, Inc. (January 2, 2009) ISBN-10: 0596514867 ISBN-13: 978-0596514860 Update: I owe an apology to O'Reilly and anyone who has read this review so far. I rather consistently referred to the "Head First" series as the "Head Start" series. The mistake was completely mine and I apologize. No, this isn't a book that directly maps to FOSS or Linux or programming...exactly. On the other hand, the paths to programming in open and closed source usually move through this realm, so I think it is relevant. Picture yourself a would-be programmer who likes to code in your spare time, but you've got a problem. To really become any good at what you'd like to be your profession, there are math requirements, and you think math is almost as interesting as watching wind erode granite. Fortunately for you, O'Reilly and the Head First series has come to your rescue. They created "Head First Algebra". I agreed to have a look at this book first as a rough cut via Safari. Unfortunately, it presented me with a major drawback relative to my learning style; I could't write in the book. OK, I admit it. I really need to be able to write notes in my textbooks, highlight key sentences and paragraphs (which can include a sizable percentage of the book) and otherwise fold, spindle, and mutilate the thing. As hard as I tried, I just couldn't stick with it when the learning source was online. It doesn't help that I'm kind of "math-phobic" on top of everything else. Actually, that's not entirely true. I do just fine with standard math such as adding, subtracting, multiplying, and dividing. It's all that other pesky stuff, which includes "algebra", that sets off my panic attacks. I've actually taken and passed an algebra class in the dim past, but my grades weren't exactly stellar (compared to the much higher grades I got in all of my other classes), so when I saw that Head First was offering an algebra book, I figured I had a second chance. I hate admitting defeat or anything near it. This book seemed to be my way to victory. When the paperback version of the book arrived on my doorstep, I sharpened a brand new number 2 pencil, got out a fresh highlighter, and got to work. I had gone through the first chapter in Safari, so I knew that the material would lull me into a false sense of confidence. The authors present "solving for unknowns" as simple adding/subtracting/multiplying/dividing problems (which they are), which I can do. Of course, that's the point; to bring the reader in slowly and build up their confidence. After all, if you are going to use a Head First book to learn algebra, it means that the more standard (read: dry as Gobi desert sand) texts on the subject have not been entirely successful. Actually, I'm the perfect person to review this book. If I like it, then the target audience will adore it. If I were an algebra teacher or skilled at more advanced forms of math, I probably couldn't "reduce" my thinking down to who the book is written for. It would be like an Olympic swimmer trying to review a book written to teach pre-schoolers how to paddle in a kiddie pool. All that said, I had my usual "issues" with the Head First series. The series is written for people (young and old alike) who are just a tad bit ADHD (or more) and need to have a lot of stimulus coming in more or less constantly to stay engaged. If you could teach algebra from the perspective of a first-person shooter, that would be ideal for this population, but that's hard to do in a static book. The Head First series does its best to cater to this audience (and as an aside, I just sent my rather distractable son a copy of "Head First JavaScript", and I'm dying to see what he thinks of it) and I think high school students everywhere should pay homage to O'Reilly for creating Head First. By page 14, you can see where the book is going, even though the problems are still easy enough to do in your head, and for the math-phobic, that's when the sweat will start to form on your palms. Time to confront your fears and remember, this isn't an "ordinary" algebra book. You end up seeing a nice, neat example of "isolating the variable". Seems rather benign, actually. Why do I remember this stuff being hard? Oh wait! I'm still in the first chapter. By the end of the first chapter, the reader will start to get the feeling that they might really be successful at this stuff. Naturally, there's the spectre of more complicated problems to face, but the saving grace of the book isn't just the book. Unless your high school math teacher is using this as their official text book, you will probably use this book on its own. I'd really recommend it for a "summer reading book" you go through before formally taking algebra in the fall. The book (sans class) lets you do what the classroom experience doesn't allow. You can go at your own pace. Parents reading what I just wrote will shudder in fear, calculating that their child's voluntary "pace" at learning algebra will be slightly slower than the flow of the nearest glacier (although, with "global warming" effects, that could end up being a bad analogy). Fear not. I remember thinking to myself during my own rather painful "algebra experience" that I wished I had just a little more time to "get it". I was working my sorry tail off going to class, doing homework until the wee hours, and taking tutoring, both from the instructor (nice guy, really) and outside tutoring. If effort was the ultimate measure of how well I'd do in the class, I should have gotten an A+. Alas, things like aptitude and time have something to do with it as well. That means, the existence of this book in your room or on your bookshelf isn't enough to teach you algebra, but putting significant and regular effort into it, will. Without the artificial constraints of the classroom environment, learning algebra using this book is very "do-able", even if you don't like math. Is "Head First Algebra" a fool proof method of learning algebra for everyone? Depends. First off, you have to at least be able to tolerate the format of the Head First series (and if you already love the format, then no worries for you). Then, you have to use it. I found it a little easier to go through this book than others in the series for some reason. I think that I need to learn programming in a way that doesn't lend itself to how Head First teaches, but Head First is really the way I need to learn algebra. Will wonders never cease. I don't think I'd recommend this book to be the only exposure to algebra for you (or your kids). Almost nobody learns algebra because it's fun and entertaining (OK, there are a few people out there like that, but the rest of the "herd" thinks you're weird). We learn algebra, at least formally, because we have to. I can see the ideal use for this book as I described it a few paragraphs back. Take this book and work through it over the summer, before you have to actually take a "for real" algebra class, with a teacher, other students, homework, and (ugh) tests. Play with the book and the topic, but don't be lazy. Really use it regularly so the learning remains fresh. Then, after finishing the last pages and with all that dancing in your head, enter your high school or college algebra class. Your learning curve won't be nearly as steep and you'll be "desensitized" to the fear-inducing elements of algebra. You won't be fighting memory-destroying anxiety as you're working on learning. I hear that No Starch is coming out with The Manga Guide to Calculus next summer. I wonder...

Wednesday, February 4, 2009

Review: The Manga Guide to Databases

Authors: Mana Takahashi (Author) and Shoko Azuma (Illustrator) Format: Paperback, 224 pages Publisher: No Starch Press; Ill edition (January 28, 2009) ISBN-10: 1593271905 ISBN-13: 978-1593271909 Even though I specifically requested this book from No Starch for review, I never really expected it to be a...comic book. OK, that's not quite right, as purists will no doubt remind me. Manga isn't quite the same thing as an American comic book, but it's close enough from my point of view. I rather had expected the book to work along the lines of O'Reilly's Head First series, where technical topics are presented in text but with lots of "hyperactive" photos, graphics, arrows, and the like. The Databases book is presented as a straight manga publication and was originally published as part of a Manga Guide series in Japan in 2004. To clarify my perceptions, I actually emailed Bill Pollock at No Starch to get a clearer understanding of how this book and book series is supposed to work. Once Bill straightened me out, I was ready to proceed. Like any other manga, this one tells a story, and the story has an underlying theme. Historically, "children's" entertainment in Japan has carried a moral or ethical message, with the main characters sometimes appearing to give small lessons in cooperation, listening to parents, and so on. This manga's message isn't a moral one so much as an educational one. The underlying message is what databases are, how they're designed and how they work. The book addresses the reader who has never been exposed to any information about databases before. In fact, the first chapter is "What is a Database?" Poor Princess Ruruna has quite a problem, you see. Her parents, the King and Queen, are away and have left her in charge of the kingdom's massive fruit selling business. Unfortunately, the system she's using to keep track of her data is woefully inadequate to the task. Enter Tico the Database Fairy. I know it sounds silly, at least the way I'm describing it, but that's how the story opens. Pretty much up until page 10, the tale is presented in a typical manga fashion. The "problem" in terms of why Princess Ruruna and the Kingdom of Kod (I don't make these names up) need a database, starts to become apparent on page 11. The actual lesson in Chapter 1 starts on page 16, and that's where the book becomes more like I had originally expected. The main characters are used as "props" or "actors" to present the lesson of the chapter, in this case, what the basic problem is and how a database can be applied to create a solution. There's a short summary at the end of the chapter, then it's on to "What is a Relational Database". Subsequent chapters present a series of exercises after the main content with the answer key at the end, so this is very much a teaching book. But who does it teach and what can the students expect to learn? The intended audience (I checked, because it doesn't explicitly state this in the book's front matter) is likely high school and early university students (not exactly a shock, given the book's format). The book isn't a detailed text but rather a ground level introductory guide into the care and feeding of databases. You won't learn the SQL language, though there is a chapter in the book devoted to SQL. The idea of the book is to teach someone who knows nothing about what a database is and to give them a clue; a relatively detailed clue. The manga presentation will make it more appealing to a younger reader, or someone older who enjoys the novelty, to learn topics that can otherwise be pretty dry. If you are a "serious" student, you'll either think the book is frivolous or cute (or both), but will balk at being seen reading it in public. If you're the target audience, you won't give a rip and will probably brag about it. In fact, you're friends will probably think it's incredibly cool. Don't laugh (OK, laugh...there are funny bits in the book). This series is hugely popular in Japan, and No Starch is planning on marketing this as a series. While the books have already been authored in Japanese and been translated, No Starch is doing some re-translation and a technical review to verify that the content will really teach what it's supposed to. I mentioned the young and young-at-heart as far as the book's audience before, but it is suitable for the straight up adult who secretly likes manga and anime, and needs to get a primer on a topic that they may never have really understood before. Even people that manage databases for a living sometimes have a hard time explaining to the uninitiated exactly what a "relational database" is. Oh, this isn't just a textbook disguised as manga. Just for giggles, a bit of drama has been offered in the form of a romantic triangle. Not to worry. There's not too much "mushy stuff" there to get in the way of the book's main focus, but there is enough to keep it lightly entertaining. There is also a happy ending, which is to be expected. The book has a small appendix, which is unexpected, presenting "Frequently Used SQL Statements" as well as an index, so you can actually use it somewhat as a reference. Speaking of which, there is also a references page citing no less than nine sources, so the authors didn't whip this book up out of their heads. The primary author Mana Takahashi, is a university graduate and a technical writer on the subjects of Java, C, and XML (non-manga books), so she has the background to be authoritative. Back in the day, I used to collect comic books, though more in the vein of Spider-Man and Green Lantern, and when my kids were young, we watched the more popular anime series on Cartoon Network. I've even seen the occasional manga in my time, so I'm not completely unfamiliar with the art form. I've seen comic books, both mainstream and speciality publications, that have educated as well as entertained, but I must admit, I was taken a bit by surprise by this one. I don't know if it's really right for me, but I think it's right for the aforementioned young/young-at-heart audience, who has a need to understand the very basics of databases as concept and design. It won't do more than that, but it doesn't have to. There are plenty of books available that can carry on after this book's last page has been read. The book is written as a fantasy (Princesses, Kingdoms, Fairies), which isn't exactly what I'd go for, but it does the job it's supposed to do. Personally though, I would have preferred a few space ships, a couple of aliens, and some super-powered fight scenes. Even a couple of explosions would have been welcome. But that's just me, of course.

Sunday, February 1, 2009

Review: A Practical Guide to Ubuntu Linux (Versions 8.10 and 8.04) 2nd Ed

Author: Mark G Sobell Format: Paperback, 1272 pages Publisher: Prentice Hall PTR; 2nd edition (January 9, 2009) ISBN-10: 0137003889 ISBN-13: 978-0137003884 I upgraded my Ubuntu VM to 8.10 just for this review (well, not "just" for this review, but mostly). Of course, Sobell's second edition of this "I-weigh-a-ton" tome covers both 8.04 and 8.10, but I run 8.04 on my production machine, so I figure I've got the book covered. Judging by the size of the book though, I'd have to assume that Sobell has it covered as well. But does he? Unlike Godzilla, size doesn't always matter. Let's have a look. A casual viewing of the book's back cover tells the reader that they can expect to find out just about everything there is to know about anything they can do with Ubuntu. While most folks think of Ubuntu as the most "desktop user" friendly version of Linux, and the most likely contender to chip away at Microsoft Windows' death grip on the home desktop market, there's a lot more to consider. At least according to the blurb I read, the server aspects of Ubuntu are well covered here. The list includes Apache, DNS, LDAP, NIS, and Samba, and that's just for starters. This isn't a "switch from Windows to Ubuntu Linux" text written for the average home PC user. It's, at least in theory, an "all-in-one" guide for everything you ever wanted to know about Ubuntu (but were afraid to ask). The first edition of this book was well received, at least as far as the general body of reviews is concerned. To ask "what's new?" in the second edition is answered on the front cover, since the most current releases of Ubuntu are 8.04 (Hardy Heron) and 8.10 (Intrepid Ibex). Assume then, that the only changes you'll find in this book have to do with what changed in the most recent versions of Ubuntu. The intro to the book does present an "overlap" section, but it wasn't what I expected. The material didn't cover the "overlap" between the first and second editions of this book, but between this book and another of Sobell's books, A Practical Guide to Linux Commands, Editors, and Shell Programming. Guess there's no crime in leveraging material from one Linux book to another. Is anyone out there going to read a book like this cover-to-cover? Maybe a few fanatical souls, but most people are doing to pick out just the chapters that apply to their situation. The book is written for just about everybody, from students and home users to programmers and system admins. The book is roomy enough to where it doesn't have to skimp on any of the details for the various audiences it serves. Each major part of the book could function as a publication all its own. Given that the live CD/installation DVD for 8.10 is included in the book, Sobell apparently wrote it with the "fresh install" population in mind. So much for my efforts at upgrading my 8.04 VM to 8.10 (not that it was really difficult to do). I was happy to see that the book did contain a couple of pages about upgrading from one version to another. I don't recall the first edition giving the topic that much attention. The most important piece of information that Sobell included was that certain features in the upgrade version may not be visible, as they would be on a fresh install (and I can attest to the truth of this). Since the book is written for everyone, Sobell included the very basics of installing Ubuntu, though the task of a basic install isn't particularly daunting with Ubuntu. Part II, "Getting Started with Ubuntu Linux" reads like a general primer on how to use Linux, with an emphasis on Ubuntu and the Gnome desktop (although there are instructions for installing KDE). After all, working in the bash shell and navigating the filesystem are pretty much the same across most Linux distros. Part III, "Digging into Ubuntu Linux" bores down into the X Windows System and presents more details about bash, as well as presenting an introduction to basic networking, while Part IV, "System Administration" introduces, well...system administration and Ubuntu (or Linux for the most part). Directories and the filesystem are covered again, but this time with a "management" emphasis, as well as working with the apt system and of course, CUPS printing. Part V, "Using Clients and Setting up Servers" presents Ubuntu as a server (which is a different installation path than the desktop install). This is where you'll find chapters on setting up FTP, Mail, LDAP, and DNS servers, among others. Programmers are served in Part VI, "Programming Tools", but only shell scripting and an introductory Perl programming guide are offered. Kind of a disappointment for those of us who prefer Python, but I guess you can't have everything. On the other hand, if you want to learn how to program, buy a programming book. If you find the idea of using Regular Expressions intimidating, Appendix A might offer you some comfort. Then again, it might not. While it describes what regular expressions are, I wouldn't depend on the scant ten pages here to teach you how to use them. The other four appendixes offer useful tips on how to get help in and out of Ubuntu, a brief security lesson, what FOSS is, and the 2.6 Linux kernel. I like the "Jumpstart" feature in the book, which provides the reader with an "in-a-nutshell" description on configuring various server roles, for those who just want to know "how do I do it". Each chapter is designed to teach the reader and an Exercises and Advanced Exercises list is presented to test the audience's knowledge. I would have preferred exercise questions that would have required the reader to do more "hands on" learning instead of just having to describe a process. You learn how to do something by doing it, not by talking about it. I guess in a book that's over 1200 pages long, you still can't have your cake and eat it, too. You can learn a lot from Sobell's book but you can't learn everything. To be fair, a book that could teach you everything about all of the topics this one contains, would require a forklift or Superman to lift off the floor. Some topics, such as the aforementioned Regular Expressions, are introduced in the most superficial of fashions. So are the various text editors available (vi, emacs, and so forth). Don't expect to really learn Perl programming in "Chapter 28: Perl". It'll take you more than 40 some odd pages to teach you anything practical about programming in general, let alone Perl. There's always a special challenge involved in writing a book that casts so wide a net, both in terms of audience and as far as the content it contains. Using the Perl chapter as an example, while the information is certainly valuable, there is just enough of it present to barely get you started. It could easily have been left out of the book, with no damage to those people who need to learn about Ubuntu and all its characteristics and roles. On the other hand, such a chapter could be used to guide the interested reader to other Prentice Hall books on the topic. This chapter doesn't do that, though there are a few URLs presented at the beginning of the chapter. I guess the publisher forgot that they also have Perl by Example, 4th Edition available, and the Ubuntu book's "Perl" chapter could have been used to link the reader to this more informative tome. Despite the "I-can't-cover-everything-no-matter-how-big-I am" issues with this book, it is still a worthy read for the person who wants to know about the roles Ubuntu serves and then a little more. As with the first edition, it serves as more than an Ubuntu book. It also introduces Linux and a bit on FOSS in general, as well and info on networking, Linux printing, Linux filesystems, and so on. The Sobell book will either be all that you need as far as Ubuntu is concerned, or it will inspire you to learn more about the topics of interest it just touches on. If you want to know more about the latter though, you'll just have to figure out where to look.