Beautiful LEGO

This review will be short, but that is because the book is an easy sell. Usually a book sits on my desk for a week or two (or six) before I have time to read and review it. This one arrived today. I opened the envelope and was engrossed. Thankfully, I didn’t have anything else to do for a while.

Beautiful LEGO is a stunning coffee table book filled with astounding images of amazing things created with LEGO. This isn’t a “how-to” book, this is an inspirational book and a conversation piece. Here are some examples.

If you like these, buy the book. Honestly, as neat as they are, these aren’t even the best examples or images. There are pages in here that are completely mind blowing. My kids will have a hard time getting this one away from me.

The book will be released October 7, 2013, but it is possible to preorder, and this is one that I think would be perfect as a Holiday gift.

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

DevOps Troubleshooting

Have you ever been responsible for a server and had something go wrong? Ever been in a situation where you didn’t know what was causing the problem or how to figure it out? I think any of us who develop code, work in quality assurance, or administer systems have had this sort of experience. Sometimes problems appear that were never covered in a class or training session. Experience is an amazing teacher, but gaining that experience can be intimidating and sometimes painful. This book gives anyone working in DevOps a bit of a head start.

DevOps Troubleshooting: Linux Server Best Practices starts with a discussion of best practices in troubleshooting. This lays a good foundation for the rest of the book and should be read right away. If you don’t already know how to narrow down the location or source of a problem, how to communicate with others who may be affected or who can assist, or even where to start when a problem arises, the first chapter gives a solid plan to help you out. Most of the content of this chapter will seem obvious to people with experience, but they were not obvious to us when we started, and this information would have saved most of us a few headaches. Ideas like favoring quick, simple tests over slow and complex one, favoring past solutions that are known to work, and most importantly, understanding how the systems work before doing anything are vital. I like the advice about using the internet, but carefully, and resisting rebooting as a cure-all (because it doesn’t help you find the cause of the problem).

The chapters that follow are each focused on a specific type of problem. They include discussions of tips, tricks, and tools for diagnosing, and fixing issues. There are chapters that cover server slowness due to CPU, RAM, and Disk I/O issues, boot problems, full or corrupt disk issues, network problems, DNS server issues, email problems, web server problems, and database problems. There is even a chapter on diagnosing common hardware problems.

Experienced Linux server gurus may pick up a trick or two, but it is those who are new to working with Linux servers who are most likely to benefit from this book, and benefit in significant ways. The book doesn’t cover how to use Linux or how to set up your server, but it covers exactly what the title of the book says it will cover. For this reason, I consider this a perfect second Linux book for anyone who is relatively new to any aspect of DevOps with Linux.

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

The LEGO Build-It Book: Amazing Vehicles

LEGO. There, I got the attention of a large number of you.

The LEGO Build-It Book: Amazing Vehicles is the first volume in a new series from No Starch Press that is intended to give anyone ages 7 and older some ideas of things they can build or modify using LEGO. The 10 projects in this book are ranked by complexity, functions, and required pieces. The introduction page for each project includes design notes, technical specifications, and beautiful pictures of each finished product to whet the appetite. There is also a pretty neat section on advanced building with some useful tips for building with greater strength and imagination.

This particular volume is focused on vehicles. The 10 projects included are:

  • Off-Roader
  • Go-Kart
  • Muscle Car
  • Stroller
  • Multi-Purpose Truck
  • Historic Racer
  • Classic Car
  • Wheel Loader
  • Street Rod
  • Rescue Truck

The book is beautifully done with excellent art and clear instructions. Anyone looking for some vehicle plans and ideas is sure to find it interesting. My 7 year old son is waiting excitedly for me to finish this review and hand the book over to him. I consider that a very good sign, too.

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

The Healthy Programmer

I sit at a desk all day. I sit with my hands on a keyboard or mouse and my eyes fixed on a computer screen. This is a terrible thing to do to one’s body. I learned this first hand when, just over two years ago, I developed wrist and back pain so severe I nearly chose a different career. Instead, I talked to a doctor, read up on ergonomics and repetitive stress injuries, and made some significant changes to how I work.

I wish this book had existed back then, and better yet that I had read the book before the pain started. Even though I am healthy and doing well, I find that I must be vigilant. I get up and walk for a few minutes every hour. I take longer walks at least twice a day. I look away from the monitor frequently. Still, when I’m in the groove, it is easy to look up and realize that I have not changed my position for 3 hours. Those moments are far less frequent, and must be infrequent if I want to be able to do this sort of work the rest of my life. Same goes for you, and the sooner you realize it and adjust your work habits for the sake of your health, the better.

The Healthy Programmer: Get Fit, Feel Better, and Keep Coding is a book I recommend highly to all who work behind a desk all day, but it is especially written for programmers. While I spend more time writing documentation nowadays, my thinking patterns and my physical habits fall into the same category. This book spoke clearly to me and I think it will to anyone in a similar position.

The Healthy Programmer suggests a method of implementing changes to daily work and diet patterns that will be familiar to programmers. It is iterative, measured, and all-around Agile. You start by taking stock of where you want to go, what you want to see happen. Then, you measure how things are today and make small changes, one at a time, to your life and see how each affects the things you measured. As you get the hang of one thing and choose to incorporate it into your regular lifestyle, you measure something else and repeat the process.

We start with an introductory chapter. These lay the foundation for why some habits are good while others are not. Most of the facts are already known to us. Face it, programmer/computer engineer types are a pretty bright bunch. However, we don’t always choose to apply our knowledge, primarily because of how we have adapted ourselves to the pressures of the job. Once you get past the no-scare-tactic-or-hype discussion of habits and the well-cited using academic journals research behind what the book promotes, you find yourself wanting to do the things it discusses. It is kind of like that time you heard about a new toolkit available in a programming language you love that lets you implement a feature you have been dying to play with. You can’t wait to get started.

Topics covered in the book include walking, sitting vs standing, diet and nutrition, headaches and eye strain, back pain, wrist pain, exercise, getting up and out of your cube or home office, understanding fitness, and more. Everything comes with citations and balanced, scientific discussion that never gives in to hype or fad. You get advice that is backed up by doctors, scientists, nutritionists, and fitness professionals…and none of it sounds like the stuff you hear in the diet craze of the month or year. There are no vague promises, no unrealistic expectations, no fearmongering nor scare tactics. Just good information that is well presented and molded into a style of communication and plan for implementation that will be familiar to programmers.

This is a 200+ page book that can be easily skimmed over a weekend. Then, you can go back through it slowly over a period of months and let it help you be or become healthy and prevent, reduce, or eliminate pain. It is worth it.

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

Nginx HTTP Server, Second Edition

I reviewed the first edition of this book back in 2010 (see: Nginx HTTP Server). To be honest, that review was lukewarm and one of the reasons I started thinking about whether I would continue to review every book sent to me or whether I should be more choosy. I decided nearly two years later to be more choosy.

Nginx HTTP Server, Second Edition is an improvement over the first edition. Some of the shortcomings I pointed out have been addressed. The unnecessary chapter about basic Linux commands is gone, for example. The space was filled by expanding the Nginx-specific technical information chapters. In general, the writing quality has also improved a little, although this book still displays the annoying tendency seen in most Packt Publishing books toward awkward phrasing and grammar. Sometimes I wonder if their editorial staff is comprised of non-native speakers of English, in which case I would be more gracious toward the editors themselves while being more concerned about the company’s decision making.

Because there are so few books on Nginx, and because I think it is a web server worth learning about, I’m going to post another lukewarm review of this book. It is improved over the previous edition and is still filled with excellent technical information, but you still have to slog through writing samples like this, from the preface:

…for the past few years the same reports reveal the rise of a new competitor: Nginx, a lightweight HTTP server originating from Russia (pronounced engine X). There have been many interrogations surrounding this young web server. Why has the blogosphere become so effervescent about it?

That is almost identical to the awkward quote I included in my 2010 review of the first edition. A couple of words have been changed, so this was obviously read and updated, but to call it edited is to slight real copy editors.

Bottom line: I don’t have anything new to say over the last edition, except that today there are other books in print, including the recently reviewed and better book on Nginx, Mastering Nginx, also by Packt. Take a look at the tables of contents for the two books and compare them. If the topics covered in Mastering Nginx are enough for your purposes, buy that book. If you need the information that is in this book but not in that one, then Nginx HTTP Server is still your best bet, even with its weaknesses. This information is hard to find anywhere else, and that is why I’m reviewing the book.

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

Realm of Racket

This is not my first review of a book that covers a dialect of Lisp (see: Land of Lisp). That is because I am not alone in believing that learning Lisp makes you a better programmer, even if you never use it for any official project or paid job.

This is also not my first review of a book that is intended for young programmers. That is because I think learning a programming language is a useful skill worthy of pursuit, even if you never use it for anything but fun.

Realm of Racket was written by a group of people, including Conrad Barski, M.D, the author of Land of Lisp. Like that book, this is a book filled with enjoyable art, clear prose, and an easy to follow structure. The examples used in the book are easy to comprehend and do a very good job of illustrating the concepts being taught while also being interesting.

Why a group, though? Well, the back story is that is a book that was written by college freshmen and that is intended for a similar audience. As a result, it is alternately playful and unpretentious, with an eye for fun over drudgery, while at the same time being solid on the technical aspects (due to the supervision of knowledgeable people, or perhaps the young authors were just that good, the book doesn’t say).

So, what is Racket? The short answer is that Racket is a derivative of Scheme, which is in turn a derivative of Lisp. Some like to call them Lisp dialects. The book gives a solid grasp of important fundamentals with a clear description of the technical details. This is done by teaching the reader to program games, bit by bit. It is a fun and clear way to learn.

The book is filled with informal quips and illustrations, even the occasional comic. I have nothing bad to say about the book. I will say that the style is unique and may not suit everyone, but I think that is a direct result of the authors’ intent to pursue teaching programming to a market that does not like stodgy, formal textbooks. If that describes you or someone you know, the book is worth a look.

Disclosure: I was given my copy of this book by the publisher as a review copy.

Mastering NGINX

Nginx is an http server intended for high traffic websites with a mind toward network scalability. I used NGINX as my primary web server for about 3 years. At the time, I hosted my sites on under-powered hardware that had little memory and had trouble keeping up with demand when I used Apache, but was able to keep this web site up and running the day one of my posts hit the front page of Digg (back when dinosaurs roamed the Earth and Digg was a really cool website). Back then, NGINX was still pretty new and most of the documentation was either in Russian, sporadic, or consisted of random posts on people’s blogs. It has been a couple of years since I upgraded my server to something beefier. At that time, I switched back to Apache, since I have used it for years and know it very well. That could change again, especially now that the official documentation for NGINX is much better, and because of today’s review book.

Mastering NGINX is by Dimitri Aivaliotis, a systems architect for a hosting provider and someone who uses NGINX daily. His experience shows in the quality and depth of the material. Unlike a different book on NGINX from the same publisher that I reviewed in 2010, Nginx HTTP Server, this book is well written and does not suffer from what I have come to call “The Packt Problem.” I hope this is a sign that Packt’s copy editing process has improved and that there is now a stronger commitment to offer titles that are worthy of being read because of the quality of the writing as well as the quality and uniqueness of the technical content.

Mastering NGINX is intended for experienced systems administrators and systems engineers, people who are familiar with using and administering *nix machines and configuring servers. This is not a beginner book. For me, that is a plus. It allows the author to get right down to business with NGINX.

We start with a short and typical installation chapter, complete with a discussion of modules that includes third-party modules and their benefits and risks. Installing using the package managers of several types of Linux distributions is covered along with compiling from source and the various flags and configure options available.

The next chapter jumps right in to the good stuff. Most of the NGINX materials I once used tell you what to change, but not why to change it. For a long time I was left wondering how to tell when to use specific configuration options, which files to find them in, and what the parameters are that I can use. The goal of this book is not to tell you what to do, but to describe these very things, so that in the end, you should be able to find and open an NGINX configuration file and edit it to fit your situation. Well done.

I was a little concerned when I realized that I was nearing the end of the chapter and still had some questions in my mind about some of the parameters and settings. Then I read this on page 40 in the chapter summary:

What we did not cover in this chapter are the configuration options provided by the various modules that may be compiled into your nginx binary. These additional directives will be touched upon through the book, as that particular module is used to solve a problem. Also absent was an explanation of the variables that NGINX makes available for its configuration. These too will be discussed later in this book. This chapter’s focus was on the basics of configuring NGINX.

Bravo! The author was thinking ahead, anticipated my concerns, and addressed them immediately at the point I had them.

The rest of the book gives deeper, more detailed information about specific uses for NGINX. Topics covered include using NGINX for serving mail, reverse proxying, setting up security, HTTP serving, including setting up your server for use with PHP (which is much easier now than when I wrote this outdated post), caching, tracking, and various sorts of troubleshooting. I was thrilled to see the appendices, especially the rewrite rule guide, as when I tried to do rewrites, I couldn’t find any good information (see my now-long-outdated post on the topic.

I was pleased to see how complete and clear the book is. Kudos to the author, the reviewers and editors, and the publisher. I recommend this book to anyone who uses NGINX or wants to do so.

Disclosure: I was given my copy of this book by the publisher as a review copy.

Learn You Some Erlang for Great Good!

Functional programming is not new, but it is becoming popular once again. For this reason, in my last book review, I talked about a Lisp book and this review will cover a book on Erlang. Functional programming treats computation differently from other programming languages. Here, computation is done by evaluating mathematical functions. State and mutable data are avoided. Most of this is rooted in lambda calculus, in which everything is a function (yes, I’m simplifying, but this is a short review). Even if you prefer to use a different programming style, learning a functional language is beneficial to expand your skills and your ability to think of a problem in multiple ways, which often leads to more elegant and human-readable solutions. This is vital for long-term maintainability of code.

Learn You Some Erlang for Great Good! is by Fred Hébert. One of the things I really admire and appreciate about the author is that he provides a great example to others. So often, budding programmers and computer scientists feel intimidated by functional programming, somehow believing that they need to study for years and earn a higher level computer science degree before they even make the attempt. Hébert is a self-taught programmer and also the author of one of (perhaps the) most respected and used Erlang tutorials out there, on which this book is based and shares a title. He was named Erlang user of the year for 2012. Hébert proves that really bright people can learn and use and teach complicated things, and you can do so without learning it in a university. So, put aside the intimidation and press on!

This book covers all the basics of language and syntax, as well as the needed functional programming concepts and techniques. It covers the hot Erlang topics of today, too, stuff like concurrency and distributed computing. One thing I love is that as the book discusses these things, it does so without the typical hype and over-zealousness that often accompanies Erlang presentations and discussions. In fact, there is an amusing series of information box notes throughout the book, each titled “Don’t Drink Too Much Kool-Aid,” that give a welcome, balanced view of various features, praises, and criticisms of Erlang. Each of these shows a grounding in reality that comes from real-world use.

This is a serious book filled with quality discussions, clear writing, interesting and useful examples, and an occasional bit of whimsy. The book isn’t playful like Land of Lisp, but it isn’t dry and boring or overly academic, either. It is an accessible, practical book that the real-world programmer who is considering Erlang will find useful.

Disclosure: I was given my copy of this book by the publisher as a review copy.