The Cartoon Introduction to Philosophy

I like this sort of book, the type that combines complex ideas with approachable expression and style. It is even more enjoyable when I’m already interested in the topic.

The Cartoon Introduction to Philosophy provides a solid, basic foundation to the thoughtful contemplation and interesting ideas in philosophy. It is scheduled to be published in April 2015.

The book presents its information using an enjoyable graphic style that is well done and pleasant to the eyes. The topics are broken into six chapters, each of which builds on the previous. The order is logical, which is good for a book on philosophy, and is actually where we start after a short introduction. Logic is followed by a discussion of perception. This leads to a discussion of the mind, free will, God, and ethics.

The cartoon narrative that is the vehicle for these discussions uses a guide, Heraclitus, one of the early philosophers who predated Socrates. He takes the reader on a journey from the beginning to learn about philosophical thought from the earliest stage to later ideas that built upon, and often contradicted, them.

Most of the big names are mentioned along with a brief description of their main themes. This includes all your favorites across time, such as Plato, Descartes, and Mill. In total, I counted more than 20 different philosophers introduced. That is great in a comic-style book of 168 pages. The introductions are short and necessarily simplified, but this provides an excellent beginning to help the reader get the big picture.

I recommend the book for anyone from later elementary school through college who does not already have a basic understanding of philosophy and the main schools of thought.

Disclosure: I was given my copy of this book by the publisher as a review copy. See also: Are All Book Reviews Positive?

Fire in the Valley, Third Edition

This is the first edition of this book to be published by Pragmatic Bookshelf, which I believe is an excellent fit as a company for the book’s content. The second edition was published back in 2000 by a publisher who specializes these days in a different sort of content. Plus, I love The Pragmatic Programmers series by Pragmatic Bookshelf and this history contained here belongs in this series. Good move for both the authors and the publisher.

Fire in the Valley, Third Edition is subtitled The Birth and Death of the Personal Computer, and for good reason. The book is a history of the types of computers that people bring into their homes, starting at the very beginning when this was just a dream for a few stalwart hobbyists willing to build their own computers. It continues through the usual suspects like MITS and Apple all the way to the present day when computing power has been grafted in to so many different devices that the meaningfulness of having “my own computer” isn’t quite the same as it once was.

The book covers not only historic events and figures, but also issues and philosophies that had an impact of the birth, growth, life, and death of many companies along the way. It also includes a ton of first-hand accounts from key players that make the story rich, interesting, and fun to read.

While this is being sold quite rightly as a history book, perhaps it should receive more fanfare as a chronology of a revolution, of a sweeping cultural shift. I lived through much of the era described in the book (I bought my first computer in 1981) and can easily remember a time when there were only three or four people in my school who had a computer at home, when there was no computer lab, or when the first computer labs were created and filled with Commodore PET computers that had no software other than an operating system, so there was nothing for students to do with or on them. Society is indeed different, and this book describes integral and foundational reasons why and how that change occurred. If this sounds interesting to you, this book is easily the best one I have encountered on the topic. That was true of the previous edition, and is even more true today with the third edition. Pick it up!

Disclosure: I was given my copy of this book by the publisher as a review copy. See also: Are All Book Reviews Positive?

Ubuntu Books I Wrote in 2014

Just in time for the end of the year holidays…

I have a new edition of Ubuntu Unleashed 2015 Edition (affiliate link), now available for preorder. This book is intended for intermediate to advanced users.

I also failed to mention on this blog the newest edition of The Official Ubuntu Book (another affiliate link), now in its eighth edition. The book continues to serve as a quality introduction for newcomers to Ubuntu, both the software and the community that surrounds it.

The LEGO Neighborhood Book

LEGO. There, now I have your attention.

The LEGO Neighborhood Book is another addition to the series of cool LEGO books published by No Starch Press. In it, you find a set of instructions for building anything from small features like furniture or traffic lights to large things like buildings to populate an entire neighborhood. Unlike the creations of my youth, these buildings are detailed structures. Gone are the standard, boxy things I used to make. Replacing them are fancy window frames, building mouldings, and seriously beautiful architectural touches. In fact, many of those features are discussed and described, giving a context for the builder to understand a little bit about them. Also included are instructions for creating different types of features to put in those buildings. Everything from art work to plants to kitchen appliances is in there.

I’ve said so much about the books in this series, and it all holds true here, too. Part of me feels bad for the short review here, but the other part of me hates to repeat myself. In this instance, the praise of the past still applies. If you are a LEGO enthusiast, this is worthy of your consideration. Pick it up and take a look.

Disclosure: I was given my copy of this book by the publisher as a review copy. See also: Are All Book Reviews Positive?

Every Page is Page One

Just about all of you reading this know that I am a technical writer. One of the things I do to keep up to date with the latest trends in the field is read. I read books, articles, blogs, whatever I can find that relates. I especially enjoy Mark Baker’s blog, Every Page is Page One. Baker consistently posts articles that make me think, and in good ways. When I heard he has a book out, I contacted the publisher immediately.

As a side note, Baker’s publisher, XML Press, consistently produces books that I find useful. Every one I have read is well-written, authoritative, and filled with real-world experience and practicality.

Every Page is Page One: Topic-based Writing for Technical Communication and the Web shares the first part of its title with the blog, but the content is not directly from the blog. Rather than a collection of posts on assorted topics assembled into book form, this is a well-thought-out and well-organized text. In it, Baker observes that documentation projects tend to think about technical writing from a very book-centered paradigm. This was once ideal, but in the age of communicating technical information electronically, it forces limits on the end product that hinder the true goal of technical writing, the goal of delivering the right information at the right moment to the person who is seeking it. As someone who is not only a technical writer, but who also has a degree in information resources and library science, I have multiple reasons for supporting this goal.

What Baker does is give tangible form to thoughts and ideas that he, other technical writers, and even I have had in the abstract. How do we provide needed information to people who seek it in an age where the web makes almost anything searchable? Do manuals still matter? What about other forms of documentation? Are there changes to our style of communication, to our style of writing and presenting information, that will make the information seeker’s task easier? Baker discusses serious and realistic ways we can improve our field. It is all organized around the idea that we can no longer control the order in which information seekers will consume or even find our information, that every page (in a documentation wiki, for example) should be created in a way that enables a user to immediately understand and acquire what they need when they need it. Since we know we do not have this control like we had in a printed book, we must modify how we write and present information to fit the expectations of the seeker.

I enjoyed reading this book. I have benefited personally from reading this book. I am taking this book in to my workplace and sharing it with the other tech writers there and I believe our workplace and our employer and our customers will benefit from this book. If you work in the field, I’m convinced you will, too. The whole book is good, but my favorite parts are Section I, which lays the foundation in five chapters, and Chapter 22, which gives very practical and useful advice for making your case to others when you begin to try to make the changes the book describes.

Disclosure: I was given my copy of this book by the publisher as a review copy. See also: Are All Book Reviews Positive?

American Nations

I don’t review everything I read. Not by a long shot. I generally have 3 or 4 books being read at the same time stashed in different places in my house. Today’s book is one that I bought and that I think deserves a wider audience. It begins by separating the idea of nations from states. Nations are essentially groups of people who share a common culture, ethnic language, or historical experience. States can be made up of nations, as in the nation-states of historic France or Turkey, but nations can exist outside of states, such as the Kurdish or Palestinian nations today.

American Nations: A History of the Eleven Rival Regional Cultures of North America postulates that North America, including Canada, the United States, and Mexico (at least the northern part), is made up of eleven nations, each with its own unique historical roots, norms, mores, and cultures and that it is the differences between these nations that create the political and occasionally violent turmoil in the region, especially within the United States.

The author uses a historical narrative to describe the beginnings of each nation, and specifically the reasons its founders felt it necessary to leave their established homes elsewhere and settle in a new land. Some wanted to create religious utopias. Others wanted to escape the control of tyrants. Still others wanted to find a land that they themselves could control as new tyrants, feudal masters of their own hierarchical kingdoms. Native Americans are not forgotten, but just as in history, they are primarily relegated here to the role of conquered indigenous and their histories and interactions are mostly, but not completely, ignored except to factually and clearly describe the dastardly ways with which native peoples were usually treated.

Maps from the book have been published in articles like this one from Tufts Magazine from Tufts University and are worth a look at this point in the description. The linked article also gives a listing and short description of each nation, long enough to give a sense of the idea, but not enough to give the full argument.

The book has left me with several takeaways, and these are why I think it is worth reading for anyone with an interest in North American, and especially USA history, politics, and culture.

  • Talking about red states vs blue states or Republicans vs Democrats or even The North vs The South forces extreme simplification of more complex issues, beliefs, and trends.
  • Thinking that “everyone in the Midwest” USA thinks or believes the same is naive–this is actually one of the more diverse sections of the country, which is why it always seems to be the power broker or swing voting area. In fact, it has historically been the buffer between the Yankee north and the Deep South extremes of the spectrum on almost every debate.
  • American history is presented very differently to children in each of these national areas. The obvious example is that what people who grew up in Yankeedom call “The Civil War” is called “The War Between the States” in the Deep South and often also in Tidewater and Greater Appalachia. However, this is only an obvious example and are there many less-obvious examples that I didn’t realize exist.
  • The men who made the decisions while creating the United States of America as a state sharply disagreed on many issues and for its first hundred years it was not certain the state would persist.

American Nations gives a clear description of each group, its stated motives, and its actions and uses these to dispassionately explain thought and voting trends and more across the areas. It follows these across time as historical events unfold that cause power to rise and fall, especially as the nations expand geographically and how each chose to do so–note, each nation did so very differently from the others. The intent is to help the reader grasp the layers of meaning, communication, alternate understandings and perceptions of events that make up the continent and especially the United States. Knowing this helps both the insider and the outsider grasp the difficulty inherent in trying to unite people across the nations toward any common goal.

As a supplement to a typical (lacking) education in North American and especially American history, I consider this book a quality companion to Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States; this book is less political, but I don’t think it will be less transforming for the reader.

Disclosure: I was NOT given my copy of this book by the publisher as a review copy. See also: Are All Book Reviews Positive?

The LEGO Adventure Book, Volume 2

One more post before the holidays. I reviewed the first volume in this series just about a year ago in a post that covered three LEGO-related books.

The LEGO Adventure Book, Volume 2 is another hardcover book. This time, the volume includes a series of about 40 step-by-step building guides that are similar to what is provided when you buy a LEGO kit and pictures of many more built models for further inspiration. What I said about the first book in the series also applies here, so I’ll start off by quoting myself:

The illustrations in this book are stellar and the models are outstanding. Anyone looking to be inspired to build more interesting and more beautiful things will find this book thrilling. The book follows a loose story line focused on an adventure, a quest to learn how to build interesting and complicated things with LEGO. The story line is neither vital nor distracting, it just gives an fun excuse to move from idea to idea. This is [another] book that I expect my kids to enjoy (ages 8, 10, and 11).

If you liked the first volume, you will like this one. Along with the abundance of new ideas and building guides, there are some subtle refinements to the presentation that make this sequel even more enjoyable than the first volume. For one, there is a new focus on imagination with a limited palette, such as when a builder has only a few LEGO parts to work with rather than a limitless supply. This is a nice touch as it helps with a positive “I can do it” attitude rather than the common sales tactic that starts by building a sad “I don’t have the parts they have” feeling in the builder. To be sure, there are plenty of LEGO pieces in the examples that the reader may not already have, but they are not to focus; the focus is being creative and inspiring the reader. I like that.

The examples and projects are fun, diverse, colorful, and just all-around cool. In addition to the step-by-step instructions for specific projects, like Havoc: A Viper Fighter, where the reader learns how to build one form of space fighter, there are also follow-up pages that break the idea down to the important bits like A LEGO Viper should have… and a list. Then, there are lots of pictures of variations on this theme that use the same basic set of foundational parts to create a wide set of options and variations. This builds on the theme I mentioned above of avoiding the marketing evil of creating discontent and instead using simple basic things to get builders started and then building creativity.

The book contains large projects and small ones. There are space-based builds, earth-based, fantastic and realistic, futuristic and nods to the past. You will build cars, boats, planes, spaceships, homes, businesses, furniture, island getaways, castles, gardens, movie sets, kitchens, and some things I don’t even have words to describe or categories to name. The variety is great.

I have reviewed a lot of LEGO books this year. This is one of my favorites. It just came out, the copyright date says 2014, but I’m pretty sure I’ve seen this at the local bookstore. It is worth a look if you have a LEGO builder on your shopping list.

Disclosure: I was given my copy of this book by the publisher as a review copy. See also: Are All Book Reviews Positive?

Trinity: A Graphic History of the First Atomic Bomb

This is one of those books that is hard to categorize. It is alternately fascinating and disturbing, historically important and tragic, accessible and thought-provoking. This is a perfect mix of what I think we should feel when confronted with the history of The Manhattan Project and the world’s entry into the Atomic Age.

Trinity: A Graphic History of the First Atomic Bomb strives and succeeds at two tasks. It tells an accurate history of the facts and events leading up to the creation of the first atomic bomb through its use by the United States in the destruction of the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasake. It also successfully prompts the asking of philosophical questions that humanity must wrestle with when faced with such destructive power.

Throughout the black and white illustrated book, the graphics are clear and compelling. You feel the emotions of each moment, the fears and the excitement, the hope and the despair. You look into the eyes of the participants and feel their complexity and depth. This set of people were not monochrome in their beliefs, but complex and this comes through.

The events are told clearly, using a linear style that also incorporates both flashbacks and foretelling. It does so to great effect. Throughout, we get just enough scientific explanation to make the complexity of the topic clearer, using descriptions that are easy to understand while also technically accurate and complete enough to be meaningful.

All this is good. But there is one thing that this book accomplishes that is even better. It makes you think. This is no mere scientific or historic text, although it is both of these. It is also a philosophical springboard to deep meditation. This is a very good thing. You start by feeling alongside the participants the excitement of a scientific quest as they ask, “Can it be done?” You end with the same question most of them ended with, “Should it be done?”

Disclosure: I was given my copy of this book by the publisher as a review copy. See also: Are All Book Reviews Positive?

HTML 5 Unleashed

I previously reviewed some books on HTML5 and CSS3, but that was back in 2011. This is a brand new book on HTML5. It doesn’t cover CSS3, but it covers the HTML specification in greater detail than the other two books.

HTML5 Unleashed is part of the same series as my book, Ubuntu Unleashed 2014 (which is brand spanking new as well…just saying…). I’m stating that right up front so that everyone knows that I have a potential conflict of interest. Read my review with that in mind. I’m trying to be unbiased, and I have no direct financial or editorial interest in HTML5 Unleashed, but I am the author of a book in the same series. So, now that that is out of the way, let’s dig in.

HTML5 Unleashed is filled with beautiful, full color pages. Figures and code appear just as they do in browsers and quality code editors. That is a really nice bonus that makes long code samples (and we all love long code samples!) easier to read and gives us an easy way to visually confirm that what that code is supposed to do is being done in our browser when we try it out. Seriously, there is color on every page. I like it.

The book starts with a nice, easy introduction that gives us some historic and technical context as to why HTML5 was created and what it is designed to do. For those of us who have been making webpages since the early GeoCities era, it is a nice refresher that makes for a very quick read and provides an accurate context for the newcomer.

Chapter 2 is another quick introduction chapter that presents the important concepts for HTML5 from a high-level. This is actually important as it clarifies the “why are these things being presented” well before you dig in to the meat of the book. Don’t skip it, it’s short and worth reading.

The rest of the book, chapters 3-13, cover what I consider the main reason for buying the book. In here are the details we all want. While a quick Google search will give you most of this information, maybe all of it, it will not give it to you in such a well-planned order that builds upon itself.

Specifically, topics include everything from the basics like Doctypes and semantic tags to forms. Then, we move into deeper topics like rich media. A set of four chapters is dedicated to covering HTML5 canvas, which is the flashiest and most immediately-gratifying part of the new specification as it “natively enables interactive movies, games, charts, diagrams, and tons of other forms of dynamic visual content.” The canvas section includes topics like when and when not to use canvas over other options, working in 2D and even in 3D, making canvas interactive and stateful, performance tips, and even a discussion of its expected future.

The last section of the book takes a 5 chapter romp into HTML5’s JavaScript APIs. There was a time when JavaScript was optional for the web, but if you want to make anything relevant today, you must know how to use at least some set of JavaScript functions. Here, the book covers everything from Geolocation to storage options to messaging and web workers. It goes even deeper into network communication using WebSockets and XMLHttpRequest Level 2. Finally, it covers microdata and related small things and gives you a heads up toward topics you may want to explore beyond HTML5.

This book does not cover presentation, such as is done using CSS. This is the content side of the equation, and honestly it is the part I enjoy most. However, it will not help you learn everything you will need to know about web programming and site creation. It will, however give you the useful tools you need to upgrade your skills to today, if you are an HTML4 or XHTML proficient, and it will help the novice gain a solid foundation and understanding of what makes a site work, which I think is important before you start to work on making it beautiful.

Disclosure: I was given my copy of this book by the publisher as a review copy. See also: Are All Book Reviews Positive?

Survive! Inside the Human Body

This is a special review. This time around, I am including three books in a new educational manga series. I originally intended to produce three individual reviews, but I’m pretty excited about these books and don’t want to make you wait. The series was just published, so if it isn’t on your local bookstore shelves now, it will be soon.

Survive: Inside the Human Body, Volume 1: The Digestive System, Volume 2: The Circulatory System, and Volume 3: The Nervous System are being published by No Starch Press, the same people who brought us the Manga Guide to series, several books from which I have reviewed here in the past. Like that series, this set of books was originally published in another country (Korea, this time) and licensed by No Starch and translated into English. During this process, the information in these books was reviewed by medical doctors for accuracy. The story line was also updated in a few places to adjust the fun to an English-speaking audience.

There is much to love in this series. The information is useful and detailed. I’ll tell you more about that in a paragraph dedicated to each volume. In all the volumes, the illustrations are beautifully done, colorful (not black and white!), and genuinely add to the experience without distracting from the information or the story line. There are lovely samples to view on the No Starch site at the links above.

The three volumes have one story line that arcs across the set. It is a cute story that is pretty typical in its use of standard manga motifs like overstated graphic representations of emotions. In all three volumes, at the end of each chapter, there are a couple of pages that step out of the arcing story line that give more academic details with just enough detail to tie up any loose ends that the reader may have without crossing the line into overwhelming the reader.

The first volume covers the digestive system. It covers everything from the mouth to the anus and all the stuff in between. Beautiful illustrations show useful details and help the reader understand what the action describes. We learn about how food is processed, how nutrients are absorbed, how beneficial gut flora are vital to the process, and how waste is eliminated.

The second volume covers the circulatory system. Here we learn about blood and its components, the liver and filtration, the heart, the lungs and oxygenation, the bones and blood creation, blood types, and we even get a few bonuses with side tracks into skin, the nose, and the ears.

The third volume centers on the nervous system. Topics covered include the brain, different kinds of cells in the nervous system, and the diagnostic tests that can be used by doctors to investigate when problems occur.

Disclosure: I was given my copy of this book by the publisher as a review copy. See also: Are All Book Reviews Positive?