Ubuntu Planet Feed Changed

For years the main feed for my blog has been posted to Ubuntu Planet. Early on, most of my posts were strictly Ubuntu-related. That hasn’t been true for a long time. I changed my feed today in the Ubuntu Planet configuration and starting from whenever the cron job on that server reads the new config file, only posts with a specific tag should appear on the feed.

Everything that has appeared on Planet Ubuntu is also tagged, so I can keep track. I hope this doesn’t cause a huge posting flood when the new config is read…if so, apologies in advance.

Let me know in the comments if you are interested in things like my computer book reviews continuing to appear in the feed.

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?

Black Friday

Here in the United States, today is the day after Thanksgiving Day. Thanksgiving Day is a holiday where we traditionally gather together with friends and/or family and celebrate the things from the past year that make us thankful.

The day after Thanksgiving Day is not officially a holiday, but many workplaces give people the day off from work, so a lot of us end up with a lovely four day weekend. Some people like to start their shopping for Christmas presents on this day, because retailers generally stay open. I think that is fine.

Over the last few decades, starting with large corporate retailers, the day has become a day to push people to buy. Some of these retailers have decided that this is the day to try to ensure that they will sell enough that they will boost their profits by astronomical amounts. For multiple reasons, the day has come to be called Black Friday.

The idea of Black Friday encompasses more than a nice, convenient day to do a bit of holiday shopping. It now exudes an air of desperation, as in you must shop at Store X on Black Friday to get the best deals, if you don’t, you will miss out. It is this materialistic, desperate attitude that I find disturbing.

I don’t care at all whether you want to keep your business open or close it. You are the owner, do what you like.

I don’t care at all whether you want to go shopping or stay home. It is your day off, relax and enjoy it as you please.

I care very deeply about the excessive desire for stuff and the driving fear of missing out that pervades Black Friday and which can continue to be seen in a minority of people throughout the season. This is evidence of something gone wrong.

News stories each year speak of of fights over this year’s Gotta Have It toy. There are pictures of large numbers of police monitoring the parking lot of WalMart to prevent fights over parking spaces and theft of newly purchased items. There are pervasive stories of people who win by getting the best deals and people who lose by being a few minutes (or hours) too late.

Remember that advertising revenue keeps most news outlets in business, so reporting like this is unsurprising; the beast must be fed, and this symbiotic atmosphere of fear and desperation helps by drawing viewers and readers and raising advertising rates and sales…just as the same attitude of fear and desperation works for the same news outlets and advertisers all year long.

The raw data clearly suggests that savvy shoppers can find good deals at any time of the year and that the United States is not a land of scarcity. There are enough things for all of us; indeed, far more than we need. It also suggests that the true winners on Black Friday are the retailers and news outlets who have partnered to create artificial fears of scarcity and convince the losing fool to part with more of his money than was originally intended.

If they pay a penie or two pence more for the reddinesse of them..let them looke to that, a foole and his money is soone parted.
Dr. John Bridges’ Defence of the Government of the Church of England, 1587

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?

Diabetes and Me

I don’t have diabetes. However, I know people who do. I also know people who are at risk. Some of these are kids. This book will be useful to anyone who has diabetes or is close to someone who does, especially if a child, adolescent, or teenager is involved.

Diabetes and me: An Essential Guide for Kids and Parents is filled with excellent information and advice that make the book worth reading accompanied by hand-drawn illustrations that transform the information into a comic book format that is a bit more accessible for both younger and older readers. It does so with a tone that is positive and hopeful about the future. The author, Kim Chaloner, is a middle school science teacher who was diagnosed with diabetes at age sixteen. Her husband and the book’s illustrator, Nick Bertozzi, is an award-winning and established illustrator and author in his own right.

The book acknowledges from the beginning that a diagnosis of diabetes is a life-changing event. It is with this perspective that the author gently takes the reader on a journey through the maze of fear, uncertainty, and confusion that is common and normal in such a moment and beyond all this to help the reader figure out how to answer the question, “What do I do now?”

The book is filled with practical information about doctors and specialists and what each one the diabetes patient is likely to interact with and why. It discusses common treatment options, monitoring, diet, and exercise. The book acknowledges various doctors and treatment centers for their assistance vetting and guiding the content and gives a solid warning to the newly diagnosed to be careful about what sources of information they trust, especially when it comes to internet searches and potential snake oil treatments.

As someone with no personal experience with diabetes, I learned a lot. I can easily imagine that someone struggling with a new diagnosis would find the book a welcome resource, as well as someone who has had diabetes for years but doesn’t feel like they really understand what is going on.

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

Computers as Theatre Second Edition

Back in high school, a very long time ago, I took a drama class. I also took a one-sememster drama class at the university. This means I have a very elementary foundation, but I am far from an expert in the field. However, from the moment I heard this book’s title I immediately saw the potential.

Computers as Theatre, Second Edition is an update to a 20-year-old classic in the field of human-computer interaction. The author, Brenda Laurel, is an Adjunct Professor of Computer Science and Affiliated Faculty for Games and Playable Media at the University of California, Santa Cruz. In addition to her academic credentials, which include a PhD in theatre, she also has serious real-world experience with previous employers like Atari, Activision, and Apple.

The book is based on the simple premise that effective interface design, just like effective drama, must engage the user directly in an experience involving both thought and action. Laurel’s key point is that a user’s enjoyment must be a paramount design consideration, and she posits that it demands a deep awareness of dramatic theory and technique. While I might shrink back from the idea that this awareness is an absolute requirement, I will quickly and easily concede that this awareness would be extremely useful.

This is not a book of practical tips and tricks. It is a reader-accessible study that lays out the philosophical and academic foundations for understanding first how humans audience members interact with drama and uses that as a basis for thinking about how computer users can more effectively be enabled to interact with computers.

The beginning of Computers as Theatre focuses on both classical and modern schools of thought and theory about drama. This is very interesting and outside of my previous experience. It got me thinking about things I had never considered. I like that.

The rest of the book takes this knowledge and applies it to computers. It does so in ways that alternately seem obvious and revolutionary. I will illustrate using one small portion of the book’s content.

In drama, the action is represented as a whole and created by the playwright and director to be the same in every performance. In human-computer interaction, the action is collaboratively shaped by both the designer and the person using the computer; it is a joint-venture and may change with each interactive session. And yet, in both instances, there is an expected beginning, middle, and end. The audience expects to move from a beginning point to an end point with a purpose. The characters in a drama exist and act to move this plot forward. So do the elements of a computer interface design.

Have you have ever sat at a computer looking at a piece of software and wondering “What’s the point?” Then you have experienced a bad interface design. Learning how to create an interface that has an obvious point and reason behind each of its constituent parts and actions is one of the things this book intends to teach, but again, from a philosophical rather than practical standpoint. Here we do not learn the “what to do” answers so much as the questions to ask. In the long term, this is usually more valuable regardless of the topic or field.

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

Matt Helmke’s Walk Across Nevada

I don’t know this guy, but he and I have the same name (which is kind of cool and weirding me out at the same time) and he is doing something that deserves some publicity. Here is a link to a Facebook page about his event and a copied/pasted/gently-edited synopsis:

[This other] Matthew Helmke was born and raised in Nevada, a proud Navy Veteran, having served our country in the Gulf War and now a cancer survivor. Last September, at the age of 35, he was diagnosed with Central Nervous System Lymphoma….brain cancer. After immediately having surgery to remove the cancer he began a grueling in hospital chemo. Every other Tuesday he spent 5 days inpatient at the Huntsman Cancer Institute in Salt Lake City receiving treatment. Just 3 months after his last chemo, he walked over 20 miles in his first “Relay for Life”. He wants to help others know that you can get better and step forward. He just passed the one year anniversary of his diagnosis. To mark this bittersweet occasion, he is walking more than 450 miles across the state of Nevada. Today alone he walked 35 miles with a 45 lb pack. I am trying to get his message out there to raise awareness, and provide encouragement for others on the same journey. He is truly an inspiration to those battling with cancer.

For those wondering, I was born and raised in Arizona and am in perfect health. Reading this story reminded me of the fragility of our humanity. Reading about my name-sharer’s persistence and fight to live is inspiring. Best wishes, Matt!