# Thursday, 19 October 2017

Ethan of Athos is one of the few books set in Lois McMaster Bujold’s universe of Miles Vorkosigan that does not feature an appearance by Miles or any member of his family.

The story begins on Athos - a planet populated solely by males, because they banned females generations ago. The men of Athos reproduce by importing ovaries and cultivating babies in birth chambers. Dr. Ethan Urquhart examines a new shipment of ovaries and discovers that they are useless - some damaged and some from animals.

Much to Ethan's chagrin, the Athos government assigns him to travel off planet and find out what happened to their original shipment. This distresses Ethan, who has been conditioned all his life to be repulsed at the thought of women.

Of course, Ethan finds himself the target of a murder attempt and he is rescued by a female assassin - Elli Quinn. Together, Ethan and Quinn track down the reason the shipment was stolen and replaced.

The story has action and intrigue, but also some messages about culture. Athos holds deep prejudices against women; and others in the galaxy hold prejudices against Athos for their homosexual lifestyles. To succeed, Ethan must overcome his prejudices and work with Quinn.

While not one of Bujold's best novels, I still enjoyed Ethan of Athos.

Thursday, 19 October 2017 18:40:00 (GMT Daylight Time, UTC+01:00)
# Wednesday, 11 October 2017

CetagandaMile Vorkosigan and his cousin Ivan of the Barrayar Empire attends the funeral of the empress of the rival Cetagandan Empire.

Shortly after landing, they are attacked by a Cetagandan servant and wrestle away a mysterious artifact. When the servant turns up dead shortly afterward, Miles and Ivan must figure out who is behind the murder, the theft of the artifact, why is the artifact so valuable, and the political plot they ultimately uncover.

Like all of Lois McMaster Bujold's novels, Cetaganda" combines action, political intrigue, and character development.  This one is primarily a detective story with Miles and Ivan uncovering clues that help them uncover the answers to the questions above.

This novel introduces the Cetagandans and provides details about their culture. It was written later than other stories that feature this race/empire and I'm told it helps to better understand their motivations.

Bujold has a talent for building rich characters and adding layers in each novel. In this story, we get a deeper look inside the mind of the carefree, womanizing Ivan and see the reaction of Miles, who is less smooth and less attractive due to his diminished size and birth defects. It's easy to cheer for Miles the underdog, despite the privileges being born to royalty.

Wednesday, 11 October 2017 10:42:00 (GMT Daylight Time, UTC+01:00)
# Tuesday, 10 October 2017

Miles Vorkosigan is young and intelligent, but deformed and undersized, thanks to a failed assassination attempt on his mother a few months before his birth. He has the added pressure of being the son of the legendary Lord Admiral Aral Vorkosigan - one of the great military strategists of the Barrayaran Empire.

After graduating from Barrayaran Service Academy, Miles enters military service - first on an isolated frozen island under a corrupt commander, where he is falsely accused of treason. After clearing his name, he is given a security assignment far from Barrayar, where he is again framed - this time for murder. While trying to escape, he runs into the Emperor Gregor - only slightly older than Miles - who has run away to escape his responsibilities. Together, Miles and Gregor must prevent Cavilo - a femme fatal, who will kill, betray, and/or seduce anyone to gain power. She seeks to throw the empire into chaos and make herself empress. Amazingly, she has aligned herself with Miles's old corrupt commanding officer. Miles seeks the help of the Dendarii mercenaries with whom he worked under the alias of Admiral Naismith in The Warrior's Apprentice

The Vor Game advances the story of young Miles, who is an unlikely hero, thanks to his physical handicaps. Bujold establishes Miles's issues with following authority, which gets him into trouble; but also with his headstrong ways, which sometimes gets him out of trouble. We also get our first look into what makes Emperor Gregor tick.

Bujold does a very good job of mixing action, political intrigue, and character development into her stories. There are a few too many coincidences, as Miles keeps running into people from his past while at the far edge of the galaxy; but one can forgive this because the story is engaging, and the coincidences help to move it forward.

Tuesday, 10 October 2017 09:29:00 (GMT Daylight Time, UTC+01:00)
# Sunday, 08 October 2017

SwordOfShannarShea Ohmsford was living a quiet life, running a farm with his brother Flick. Shea knew he was adopted, but when the tall stranger Allanon shows up, he learns that he is half-elf and the last living member of the legendary Shannara family.

Allanon convinces the brother that their land is danger from The Warlock Lord - an evil wizard, who seeks the power of the legendary sword of Shannara; so, the three of them set out on a quest to find the sword. Along the way, they are joined by men and elves and attacked by gnomes, trolls, and black flying monsters known as "skull bearers". They are separated during their journey, but continue their mission to thwart the Warlock Lord.

This is the story of The Sword of Shannara by Terry Brooks. If it sounds familiar, it is because Brooks acknowledges J.R.R. Tolkien as one of his influences.

Comparison's with the Lord of the Rings are inevitable: A disparate group, consisting of men, elves, and dwarves travel across a mystical land to seek a powerful magic relic, preventing the evil wizard from acquiring it first. There is even a crazy gnome with a startling resemblance to Gollum.

If you can get past Brooks's obvious "inspiration" for his plot, he does tell a pretty good story. The narrative is more traditional than Tolkien's and more appropriate for the simpler story. I enjoyed it.

Sunday, 08 October 2017 10:00:00 (GMT Daylight Time, UTC+01:00)
# Wednesday, 27 September 2017

The Warrior's Apprentice is the fourth book I've read in Lois McMaster Bujold's Vorkosigan Saga; but it is the first one to feature Miles Vorkosigan, the protagonist of most of the series.

An assassination attempt on Miles's mother during her pregnancy resulted in Miles being born with extremely brittle bones. Despite this handicap, he attempts to pass the rigorous requirements of the military academy on his home planet of Barrayar. After breaking both his legs in a physical exercise, Miles travels to his mother's home planet to visit his maternal grandmother; but is sidetracked by the adventures he encounters when he buys one spaceship and captures another.  It all leads to political intrigue and an attempt to frame Miles for treason.

I really like the character of Miles - an unlikely hero, given his handicap and his sub-5-foot stature. He is especially disadvantaged because Barrayar is a planet that disdains imperfections, often aborting "inferior" fetuses. He is a great contrast to his noble father and his headstrong mother.

The Warrior's Apprentice advances the story of the "Vorkosiverse", introduces a significant new character, and stands alone as a good adventure story.

Wednesday, 27 September 2017 06:21:34 (GMT Daylight Time, UTC+01:00)
# Tuesday, 26 September 2017

LeaderhipJourneyI have known Jim Holmes for years, and I have experienced many times his presentations and his writings about leadership skills. This year, he finally compiled that advice into a book - The Leadership Journey.

He draws on his experience in the US Air Force and  in the business world, providing examples of himself and others in a leadership role.

The book begins with 2 assumptions:

  1. Most of us are not born with great leadership skills
  2. We can each work to improve our leadership skills

Holmes lists the qualities needed to be a good leader:

  • Integrity
  • Respect
  • Decisiveness
  • Motivates those around them
  • Delegates authority
  • Remains Calm in storm
  • Protects the team
  • Knows what's really a crisis
  • Leads from the front

It's no accident that Integrity tops this list. "Integrity is a coin you can’t afford to spend," he correctly asserts, pointing out the long-term damage when trust erodes.

Each chapter focuses on one key point of leadership and includes one or more exercise. Typically, each exercise asks the reader to write down some ideas; step away for a few minutes; then return and review what he wrote. They are deliberately time-boxed to keep the reader focused and to give her time to reflect on the ideas. For example, one exercise asks the reader to identify a few effective leaders from their own experience and identify traits they have in common.

The book advises a few things that I've been doing for years, such as writing down what needs to get done and keeping track of wins. But it also includes new (to me) ideas, such as recognizing small victories to foster success.

At 107 pages, this is a quick read (I finished on a flight from Seattle to Chicago); but it is dense with good advice.

Much of the advice may seem like common sense to you. But I've made many of the mistakes pointed out in this book and I've worked with many managers who have made these mistakes. Reinforcing these ideas is a step toward internalizing them.

Tuesday, 26 September 2017 20:25:44 (GMT Daylight Time, UTC+01:00)
# Wednesday, 06 September 2017

TheEyreAffairThursday Next is an agent working for the British Special Operations law enforcement agency in an alternate world where England and Russia are still fighting the Crimean War, where Wales is an independent country, and where time travel is possible.

The people of this 1985 England love their literature. They are so passionate that literary arguments sometimes erupt into riots and a special government police department exists solely to deal with crimes of literature. Thursday works for this department.

In The Eyre Affair by Jasper Fforde, Thursday's uncle Mycroft invents a machine that allows people and characters to travel in and out of fictional books. If one enters a book and changes the plot, the story in the actual book changes. If this happens in an original manuscript, every copy of that book is modified. The Villainous Hades kidnaps Mycroft, steals the machine and some original literary classic manuscripts; then blackmails England, threatening to kill characters in the book, destroying England's most beloved literature. And only Thursday can stop him.
If you think this sounds like some serious suspension of disbelief, you'd be right. If you think it sounds somewhat silly, you are right about that as well. This novel is filled with weird science and over-the-top characters with names like Braxton Hicks and Jack Schitt. But it works. And not just as satire and humor. Although the story never takes itself too seriously, it never falls into the completely absurd, as with authors like Douglas Adams and Terry Pratchett.

The Eyre Affair is a silly, adventure, detective, sci-fi, comedy story filled with action and memorable characters.

I loved it.

Wednesday, 06 September 2017 05:49:42 (GMT Daylight Time, UTC+01:00)
# Tuesday, 22 August 2017

Garion was an orphan boy living on a farm with his Aunt Pol when Mister Wolf a kindly, old traveler - took the two of them on a quest to retrieve a stolen object of great value.

Mister Wolf turns out to be Garion's grandfather the ancient sorcerer Belgarath; and the stolen object turns out to be a magical orb forged by the god Aldur, and stolen by his brother Torak, who now lies asleep for centuries after the orb was re-captured by Belgarath. Prophecies surrounded the orb, including one that foretells a battle to the death between Torak and Garion (now renamed Belgarian).

The 5-volume epic fantasy The Belgariad by David Eddings follows the trio and companions they gather along their quest to both liberate enslaved lands and to fulfill the prophecies of the orb. Although the prophecy predicts a death battle between Belgarian and Torak, it does not predict the outcome of this battle. Along the way, they pick up the runaway princess Ce'Nedra, with whom young Belgarian has a love/hate relationship.

With 5 volumes to work with, Eddings does a good job of weaving a story of adventure and building a cast of characters and a relationship between those characters. The Belgariad is a coming-age-story for Belgarian, and also a coming-age-story for Ce'Nedra, who grows from spoiled princess to potential monarch in the latter two novels. Belgarian discovers himself, his magical abilities, and his destiny as he travels across the world fighting evil.

Each book begins with a brief story of the old gods and their battle for the orb during ancient times. This story is told in a more formal voice (as if read aloud from an ancient codex) than the rest of the book, which focuses on the story of Belgarian and his company. 

The story is much less complex than the Lord of the Rings (from which it draws obvious inspiration). The wizard-led fellowship traveling across a dangerous world of fantastic beasts and pitting magic against magic is similar enough to Tolkein's story, that I could not help reading the part of Belgarath in the voice of Ian McKellan. But Eddings makes The Belgariad original enough and adds enough action to hold my interest throughout.

My only complaint is how little time is devoted to the final, inevitable battle between Belgarian and Torak. We wait for it for 4.9 books and it is over too quickly.

It's not a classic, but The Belgariad is definitely worthwhile and is an enjoyable story set in an interesting world.

Tuesday, 22 August 2017 10:50:00 (GMT Daylight Time, UTC+01:00)
# Saturday, 29 July 2017

The Dispossessed by Ursula K. LeGuin is the story of the twin planets - Anarres and Urras that rotate about one another.

Centuries ago, a group of revolutionaries on Urras escaped or were exiled to the barren world of Anarres, where they have been working the mines and building an equalitarian society - a society in which all property is owned collectively, and everyone shares everything and the government controls nothing.

Urras is a world with a beautiful main city where everyone has plenty. But the ruling class of this city oppresses the lower classes outside the city and keeps them in their caste. An oppressive government keeps the rich and poor in their places.

Shevek is a physicist, who was born on Anarres; but he is one of the few from that world permitted to visit Urras. Shevek is invited to an Urras university in order to complete his work - a work that the Urrans hope can allow them to produce faster-than-light interstellar travel. He is overwhelmed by the beauty of his host city, unaware of the suffering outside the walls until local rebels try to contact him.

The story is filled with ambiguities: The 2 planets orbit one another yet each considers the other its moon; It's never clear if walls are built to keep people out or in; the anarchy of Anarres seems morally superior to the caste system of Urras, but Anarres's system is far from perfect and its people suffer much hardships.

LeGuin tells the story in a non-linear fashion, alternating chapters between recounting Shevek's early life and his pilgrimage to Urras. This narrative style can be hard to follow at times, but it revealed his character and contrasted the strengths and weaknesses of each society.

I had forgotten how much I enjoyed LeGuin's writing. She weaves within her stories multiple themes about society and economics. I will be reading her work again soon - maybe a second reading of this book.

Saturday, 29 July 2017 06:53:50 (GMT Daylight Time, UTC+01:00)
# Saturday, 08 July 2017

AssassinsQuestAssassin's Quest is the third, final, and longest book in Robin Hobbs's Farseer Trilogy.

It also the book with the most action.

Royal bastard Fitzchivalry Farseer was executed by his Uncle Regal, who has usurped the throne from its rightful heir. He escaped by using his Wit power to transfer his consciousness to his wolf-brother and living as a wolf for weeks. Fitz's allies manage to return his soul to his exhumed body following the execution, but he is become more wolf than man and struggles to resume his old life or to fight for his kingdom.

King Shrewd and King-In-Waiting Chivalry (Fitz's Father) are both dead.  Verity has left the kingdom to seek the help of the legendary Elderlings, hoping they can rescue his kingdom from the attacking Red Raiders.

Fitz has 2 quests in this story - the first to find and assassinate King Regal and the second to find his Uncle Verity in hopes he can restore order to the kingdom.

Most of this book follows Fitzchivalry's odyssey across the world, seeking Verity and the dangers he encounters along the way. He is reunited with The Fool - a jester he befriended during his days at court. The Fool reveals himself to be more than he showed before and they seek Verity together.

This is the most complex and most satisfying of the 3 Farseer novels. The storylines weave in and out as Fitz travels across the world and out of his own kingdom. Magical powers are used just enough to keep them plausible in this world; but not so much that they are an easy escape from any danger.

Assassin's Quest completes Fitz's transition to manhood and brings the story of Regal's power grasp to a conclusion. The ending felt a bit rushed, but Hobb managed to tie up each of the plot lines. Overall, I very much enjoyed this series.

Saturday, 08 July 2017 14:04:25 (GMT Daylight Time, UTC+01:00)
# Wednesday, 05 July 2017

"Royal Assassin" continues the saga of FitzChivalry, the bastard son of king-in-waiting Chivalry, who is raised to be an assassin.

Fitz recovers from the assassination attempt by his Uncle Regal at the end of "Assassin's Apprentice". He grows to manhood at a court engulfed by the rivalry between his two uncles: the noble Verity and the wicked Regal. Regal and his minions plot to poison the mind of King Shrewd by drugging and isolating him from anyone else. Meanwhile, Verity is devoted to the protection of his people (most notably from the invading and pillaging Red Raiders).

This story mostly involves political intrigue as Fitz is caught in the middle of a battle between his 2 uncles. But there is also much action and character development, most notably of Fitz himself, who is growing to manhood and attempting to harness his mental powers.

Fitz is prosecuted for practicing the feared and illegal Wit power and must find a way to hide it while also using it to protect himself, his king, the kingdom, and his woman.

I enjoyed the story on its own, but it also convinced me to complete the Farseer Trilogy. So, I am now on to book 3!

Wednesday, 05 July 2017 09:53:00 (GMT Daylight Time, UTC+01:00)
# Wednesday, 21 June 2017

In the province of Calderon in the land of Aleron, there are furies. Furies are magical beings with the power to control air, fire, earth, or water. Every person in Aleron can control at least one of these elements and at least one fury.

Everyone except Tavi.

Tavi is an orphan shepherd boy who lacks the basic powers of every other citizen of the realm. But it is Tavi who is thrust into the center of a battle for dominion of the realm.

Rebels led by Aldrick ex Gladius and assisted by the traitor Fidelias launch an attack against the reign of First Lord Gaius Sextus. Tavi, his uncle Bernard, and those loyal to the First Lord must fight off the invading usurpers

At the same time, warlike Marat are also invading and attacking and the sadistic rival landowner Kord is attempting to crush Bernard's family and enslave those around him.

The story builds to a climax as multiple factions clash during a siege that lasts for days. Sometimes, it is difficult to tell who is fighting whom and where alliances lie.

Jim Butcher builds a world and weaves an adventure that keeps the story constantly moving forward. He drew me in with his characters and he kept me going with the action.

This is the first novel in Butcher's 6-volume Codex Alera series and he does an excellent job of creating a tangible universe. The story stands on its own; but, in the end, not every villain is defeated and not every question is answered. One still wonders about the true identity of Tavi and a few others. I'm looking forward to the sequels.

Wednesday, 21 June 2017 14:56:53 (GMT Daylight Time, UTC+01:00)
# Tuesday, 23 May 2017

By now, you have probably seen the 1987 movie based on this book (If not, stop reading and go watch it now. You're welcome). The plot of the movie follows closely the book on which it was based. This is not surprising; William Goldman wrote both the novel and the screenplay. But the backstory of Goldman's life and reactions is much richer in the written version.

The Princess Bride by William Goldman is a story within a story.

In "The Princess Bride", William Goldman invents a fictitious novel by a fictitious author (S. Morgenstern) about a fictitious "historic" event in a fictitious country centuries ago. He then invents the story of how his father would read this book to him when he was a boy. When fictional Goldman buys the same book for his fictional son, he discovers that his father had been skipping all the boring parts, which are considerable. This, Goldman claims, was his motivation for creating an abridged and annotated version of Morgenstern's work. The result is a story within a story - a fairy tale wrapped by a family story.

In the fairy tale, young farmhand Westley falls in love with the beautiful Buttercup. He leaves Buttercup's family farm to seek his fortune. When news reaches Buttercup that Westley has been killed by the Dread Pirate Roberts, she agrees to marry the wicked Prince Humperdinck.

Along the way, Goldman introduces a menagerie of memorable characters - most notably Fezik, the Giant, who loves to make rhymes; and Inigo the Spaniard, who is obsessed with finding and killing the 6-fingered man who killed his father.

It's a fairy tale; it's an adventure story; it's a tale of political intrigue; but, most of all, it's a love story between a farmer's daughter turned princess and a farm boy turned pirate turned rescuer.

It's silly and it's fun and (spoiler alert) it has a happy ending.

Tuesday, 23 May 2017 10:30:00 (GMT Daylight Time, UTC+01:00)
# Tuesday, 28 March 2017

Phèdre nó Delaunay was a woman of extraordinary beauty, born with a single flaw - a speck of red in one of her eyes. At first, society shuns Phèdre for this imperfection; but a nobleman recognizes the red moat as a sign from the fallen angel Kushiel that Phèdre was born with special talents. He buys her and begins her training to put those talents to use.

It turns out that her talents are to be really good in bed and the ability to derive sexual pleasure from pain. Her training prepares her to become a high-priced prostitute to be passed around among the court nobles. It seems a harsh fate, but in the land of Terre D'Ange, where Phèdre lives, casual sex is the norm. The people of Terre D'Ange live by the motto "Love as thou wilt" and Phèdre is devoted to her master and sees her sexual romps as a tribute to her god.

Everything is great until her master is murdered and Phèdre is captured by Vikings, who carry her off and make a sex slave of her. She is still turned on by their cruelty, but at least she feels bad about that.

Jacqueline Carey's first novel Kushiel's Dart weaves a story of political intrigue and sex. Lots of sex. Mostly S&M sex.

Carey creates a world much like early Renaissance Europe and follows the upper class of a city founded by the demigod Elua and a group of fallen angels. The current residents of Terre D'Ange are the descendants of those angels.

The story doesn't get going until the murder/kidnapping and the escape and recapture and war that follow, but it takes nearly 500 pages to get that far. Until that point, it's aristocrats flirting and spying and backstabbing and having sex.

It's supposed to be a high fantasy novel but reads more like a sex fantasy novella. Even though Terre d'Ange was founded by fallen angels and demigods, we get only a couple brief encounters with supernatural beings and those don't occur until about two-thirds of the way through the novel.

I liked the interweaving political plots of Kushiel's Dart. But I grew weary of the frequent sexual exploits. It was meant to be a High Fantasy novel, but at times reads like a sex fantasy novella. In this day and age, I can get my soft-core pornography too easily to be aroused by throwing in a bondage scene every few pages of a novel.

Tuesday, 28 March 2017 13:27:00 (GMT Daylight Time, UTC+01:00)
# Sunday, 05 March 2017

Assassin's Apprentice by Robin Hobb is an Epic Fantasy, a Coming-of-Age story; and a story of Political intrigue.

It is the story of FitzChivalry Farseer. Fitz is the bastard son of Prince Chivalry, who is heir to the throne of the Six Duchies kingdom.

At the age of 6, the nameless boy is unceremoniously delivered to the castle of his birth father, where he is raised by the king's stablemaster.

Fitz has magical gifts - the ability to communicate telepathically with both animals and humans, which sometimes helps him and sometimes marks him for the hatred of others (along with his illegitimate birth). When his grandfather King Shrewd takes notice of the boy, he orders that he be trained as an assassin.

The climax occurs when, as a teenager, Fitz is ordered to kill the innocent prince of a neighboring kingdom. He must balance his duty to his king with his own conscience and his loyalty to those around him.

It's a complex story with many subplots and many well-developed characters. It's often difficult to tell who is loyal and who is conspiring against our hero.

Assassin's Apprentice is Book 1 of the Farseer Trilogy, which is the first of several trilogies and novels Hobb has written about Fitz and his universe. I plan to return to this series in a few months. For now, I am savoring this volume.

Sunday, 05 March 2017 01:03:04 (GMT Standard Time, UTC+00:00)
# Thursday, 02 March 2017

JesusOnDeathRowThe story of Christianity is the story of Jesus Christ – his birth, his life, his trials, his death, his message, and his resurrection.

In Jesus on Death Row, Mark Osler walks us through the biblical story of Jesus's trial, conviction, and execution; and compares it to the criminal justice system in the United States of today.

Osler draws upon the 4 Gospels for the details of Jesus's trial; and upon his own experience as a prosecutor (he is now a law professor) for analogous stories in today's legal system.
The similarities are often striking.

Many practices of Jesus's time persist today. Prosecutors still rely on paid informants to bolster their case as the Pharisees famously paid 30 silver coins to Judas Iscariot; the appeal process of today, although slower, is not unlike the process that Jesus went through as he was brought before the Jewish Elders, Pontius Pilate, and Herod; Arrests today are often made when a suspect is vulnerable and unprotected, which is how Jesus was arrested at night in the garden.

There are differences, of course. Crucifixion was an extremely painful way to die and would not pass today's ban against cruel and unusual punishment.

Osler discusses the last meal of prisoners, which is probably the death row event with which average people can most easily identify. He notes that Jesus's last supper the night before his execution was well documented in the gospels and is a key event in Christian history.

Jesus on Death Row leaves the reader with a sense of uneasiness about the death penalty, which is a final and irrevocable sentence - particularly as we see it applied to Jesus Christ, who was guilty of no violent crime. This undercurrent isn't surprising as Professor Osler spends part of his time fighting for the rights of inmates on death row.

I found the book fascinating. I've read the Gospels, but not with an eye toward the legal aspects and how they compare with today's law. "Jesus on Death Row" gave me a new perspective on an old and familiar topic.

Thursday, 02 March 2017 06:10:42 (GMT Standard Time, UTC+00:00)
# Saturday, 11 February 2017

The world of Sunshine is filled with demons and werewolves and a variety of monsters. But the most dangerous creatures are the vampires - undead creatures who prey on humans at night.

sunshine[1] Sunshine is kidnapped by vampires and finds herself chained next to the starving vampire Constantine, who is also a chained prisoner of her captors.

Together, they escape their prison. Sunshine returns to her life but the authorities and her family want her to explain where she has been and how she was able to escape from these creatures (No one ever escapes vampires).

Throughout the book, Sunshine and Constantine and a few human and half-human allies fight a battle against evil and powerful vampires. Along the way, she finds herself drawn to Constantine and learning about her own powers. She wrestles with her identity as she can no longer live the simple life of working in a bakery.

I liked the story and I liked the characters. Sunshine is strong, but flawed. The writing is sometimes rambling but that's ok, because it's written in the first person and that's how Sunshine thinks. Constantine is menacing and distant and alien. But he is likeable. And he strives to understand Sunshine, which sets him apart from the others of his breed.

Sunshine is a good story for those who want a new twist on an old legend without the triteness too often associated with this genre.

Saturday, 11 February 2017 11:37:00 (GMT Standard Time, UTC+00:00)
# Thursday, 19 January 2017


Tristan Thorn was born in the town of Wall - so named because of the giant wall that separated the village from the mystical land of Faerie. His father was a mortal in Wall and his mother was a magical woman from Faerie.

As a young man, Tristan fell in love with the beautiful Victoria Forester. To win her love, he promised to bring back the star they saw falling into the land of Faerie. So Tristan set out on his quest across the forbidden land.

But Tristan was not the only one seeking the star. Just before he died, the Lord of Stormhold (a Faerie kingdom) promised his throne to whichever of his sons could retrieve the star. And three ancient witches sought the star because its heart would bring them eternal youth. 

Tristan finds the star, which we discover is actually a young Faerie woman named Yvaine, who has broken her leg in the fall from the sky. He sets out to bring her back to Victoria, loses her, finds her again, and encounters a number of adventures as he crosses the magical lands.

In "Stardust", Neil Gaiman creates a world of beauty and wonder and characters both real and magical. The writing style is one of epic fantasy and the prose is beautiful.

Stardust is a fairy tale for adults and I enjoyed it immensely.

Thursday, 19 January 2017 14:35:27 (GMT Standard Time, UTC+00:00)
# Friday, 06 January 2017

The Illustrated Man despised the tattoos that covered his body. In the daytime, they were beautiful works of art; but at night, they came to life and told stories that predicted the future. And they always predicted a bleak future.

The Illustrated Man by Ray Bradbury is a collection of the stories told by the pictures on the circus refugee's body - 18 dark tales of science fiction and horror.

Bradbury frames the collection by narrating an encounter with the Illustrated Man along a deserted road and relaying the stories acted out by the animated tattoos.

Some of the stories take place on Mars - the site of Bradbury's most famous short story collection - but do not necessarily share continuity with his "Martian Chronicles" stories.

The stories have no common thread, but they are all dark and many explore how man's psyche deals with his place in the universe.

In "Kaleidoscope", the doomed crew of a crippled space ship reflects on their lives as they float to their deaths. The last survivor laments that there is no way he can perform a good act to make up for his "terrible and empty life".

In "The Other Foot", a future Mars is colonized entirely by black people. When Earth is destroyed by nuclear war, spaceships filled with white people arrive, asking to be allowed on Mars, acknowledging the oppression they perpetuated that caused the blacks to flee in the first place.

"Marionettes, Inc" could be a Twilight Zone script. A company will sell you a robotic replica of yourself, so you can escape your responsibilities without your family knowing. Predictably, it all goes horribly wrong for the customers.

The edition I read included the origin story of The Illustrated Man (some editions omit this story), which is the tragic tale of a carnival worker who tries to salvage his marriage and his job by accepting an offer to be completely tattooed by an old witch.

This collection is a good introduction to Ray Bradbury and a good read for those who already enjoy his writings.

Friday, 06 January 2017 16:18:27 (GMT Standard Time, UTC+00:00)
# Wednesday, 04 January 2017

Will and Jim were 13 years old when the circus marched into their small town in the middle of an October night.

But there is something wrong with this circus and its creepy proprietor, the tattooed Mr. Dark. The Merry-Go-Round has the power to change a rider's age: The rider ages if they ride it in the forward direction and becomes younger if they ride it backwards. One catch: Riding the merry-go-round binds the rider to Mr. Dark's servitude forever.

Both boys are anxious to grow up and are tempted to take the magical ride. Adventurous Jim insists on trying, but cautious Will holds him back. When Mr. Dark learns that they know his secret, he and his minions attempt to capture the boys and their families.

What ensues is a battle of good against evil in a dark horror fantasy novel. Will's father - tempted to ride the merry-go-round backward - joins with the boys to battle the evil carny. The 3 of them battle for their souls and the souls of the townsfolk.

Something Wicked This Way Comes is a coming of age story in small-town America; It is a classic horror fantasy novel; and it is an adventure story. 

I loved it.

Wednesday, 04 January 2017 01:01:47 (GMT Standard Time, UTC+00:00)
# Saturday, 31 December 2016

Aral and Corelia Verkosigan have just married and returned to Aral's home planet of Barrayar. They are looking forward to Aral's retirement and to raising a family. But the Emperor is dying and Aral is forced back into service as Imperial Regent until the heir to the throne - 5-year-old Gregor - comes of age.

They quickly find themselves trapped in the political machinations of the Barrayaran Empire and of those scheming to gain power vacated by the dying Emperor.

Shortly after Aral's appointment as Regent, a failed assassination attempt leaves Cordelia's unborn child severely injured and in danger of dying.

And then, a group of Barrayaran noblemen attempt a coup.

Barrayar is Lois McMaster Bujold's sequel to her first novel - Shards of Honor. It concludes the story of Cordelia - former adversary and now wife of Aral Verkosigan. At the end of the story, Miles Verkosigan is born. Miles is the character upon which much of this series of books revolves.

But for now, we focus on Miles's mother Cordelia - a woman caught in a revolution that she did not plan for. She is the strong female hero often lacking in science fiction stories. And Bujold builds her character well - from her distress at her new environment to her fight to save the life of her unborn handicapped son to her role in battling the traitors trying to usurp power for themselves. We see her as a full person complete with weaknesses to soften her and the strength to overcome those weaknesses.

But the novel isn't just about character development. A Civil War, multiple assassination attempts, and a quest to rescue a princess provide plenty of action.

Barrayar is an excellent follow-up to Shards of Honor.

Saturday, 31 December 2016 16:02:58 (GMT Standard Time, UTC+00:00)
# Wednesday, 14 December 2016

Before Neil Gaiman became a famous novelist, he was a famous comic book author. And one of his most famous comic book creations was The Sandman.

The Sandman debuted in his own DC Comics title in 1989 and was moved to DC's Vertigo brand a few years later. Gaiman penned the first 75 issues over a 5-year span.

The story begins in 19th century England as a group of amateur sorcerers attempt to trap Death, but mistakenly capture Dream instead. After a century of imprisonment, Dream manages to escape and return to his dominion.

SandmanDream (a.k.a.. Morpheus, a.k.a. The Sandman) is one of The Endless - a family of god-like beings, each with control over a specific dominion. His siblings include Death, Destiny, Delirium, Despair, Desire, and Destruction. Dream is as much human as god and shows many of the weaknesses of a human, similar to the pagan deities of ancient Greece or Rome.

Although we saw very little of the DC superheroes in the pages of The Sandman, many character's from the horror and macabre titles of that universe were featured. Cain and Abel of The House of Mystery and The  House of Secrets respectively made frequent appearances.

Gaiman introduces us to a host of new characters that populate and interact with the Dream World. But he also sets the series firmly in the DC universe by brining in established characters. Mainstream super heroes, such as Batman and Superman make brief cameos; but we see much more of the alternative and macabre DC personas. For example, we learn that the House of Mystery and the House of Secrets (and their caretakers - Cain and Abel, respectively) are located in the Dream World. And Dream's brother Destiny is the same Destiny who narrated Weird Mystery Tales and Secrets of Haunted House. Other pre-existing characters in this series include Etrigan the Demon, John Constantine, Doctor Destiny, Mister Miracle, and The Fury. We also get brief appearances by Golden Age Sandman Wesley Dodds and the bizarre Jack Kirby Sandman of the '70's. Even a teenage US President named Prez - an obscure character from a 4-issue run in the mid-1970s is referenced in the story.

The stories are dark, but entertaining. They require more focus than most comics, given the complexity. Storylines may take a year or more to resolve, while other subplots unfold.

Some might be turned off by the artwork, which tends toward more abstract and sketchy; but this fits the dark mood of the series.

A few years ago, DC released a set of 10 paperbacks that include Sandman #1-75. Rather than making each volume of equal length, DC chose to keep related stories together, so that subplots are introduced and resolved in the same volume. This is how I read the series and I would recommend others do the same.

I loved the mythology of the story and I loved the humanness of it. We see Gaiman evolve as a writer over the course of the 5 years he wrote the series. If you are a Neil Gaiman fan or a fan of dark fantasy comics, I recommend this series.

Wednesday, 14 December 2016 20:14:42 (GMT Standard Time, UTC+00:00)
# Thursday, 24 November 2016

Shards of Honor was Lois McMaster Bujold's first novel and it introduced the universe that came to host the multi-volume Verkosigan Saga. It is an interesting beginning because Miles Verkosigan, the main protragonist of that series, makes no appearance in the novel.

Shards of Honor tells the story of Cordelia Naismith and Aral Vorkosigan, 2 commanders on opposite sides of an interplanetary war. Cordelia is an engineer exploring a new planet when she is captured by Aral, whose crew has just mutinied against him. Cordelia has heard stories of Aral's brutality; but he treats her with a dignity inconsistent with his reputation and she eventually discovers the stories about him are false.

Bujold shows a talent for storytelling and for creating memorable characters. The best character in Shards of Honor is Cordelia Naismith, who withstands the dangers of her crew, an attempted rape by an enemy officer, and conflicting feelings of loyalty to her home world and respect for her adversaries. Verkosigan is almost as complex. He is noble but his strong code of honor sometimes leads to killing in order to uphold that honor - even killing those on his own side. The villains of the story, such as Admiral Vorrutyer and Prince Serg are 1-dimensional and far less interesting, serving as backdrops to the relationship between Cordelia and Aral.

Shards of Honor is filled with political intrigue and action and heroics and betrayal.

And it's a love story.

And I enjoyed it.

Thursday, 24 November 2016 03:55:00 (GMT Standard Time, UTC+00:00)
# Tuesday, 22 November 2016

In the distant future, man has conquered the galaxy. We have not encountered any other sentient species.

But we did create one.

On a space station between planets, geneticists created a new type of humans - the "Quaddies". Quaddies have no legs; An extra pair of arms exist where one would expect legs on a human. This difference makes it easier for Quaddies to work in zero gravity, where dexterity is more important than walking. Though sentient, the Quaddies have no rights; they are enslaved by their creators, who even decide with whom they may mate. Having known only servitude, most of them aspire to nothing more.

Trouble begins when Claire and Tony - a pair of young Quaddie parents - are informed that Claire must mate with someone else for her next scheduled pregnancy. They are in love, so they try to escape to the surface of the nearest planet - an environment for which they are completely unsuited.

The lovers are recaptured, but their plight is noticed by welding instructor Leo Graf. Leo takes up the cause of the Quaddies - arguing for their "human" rights and ultimately plotting their liberation.

Falling Free is chronologically the first book in Lois McMaster Bujold's famous Verkosigan Saga, although it takes place centuries before the birth of Miles Verkosigan, the protagonist and namesake of that series.

The book tackles issues of human rights and dignity and the morality of enslaving a people who are brought up never dreaming of freedom. The rights and responsibilities of the creators - those who mastered the genetic engineering that made possible the Quaddies - are questioned and resisted.

But it is also a love story and Bujold creates some interesting characters, even though many of them lack depth (the main villain is a corporate bad guy, driven only by profits and hate).  The notable exception is Leo, who begins the book as an uninterested bureaucrat and transforms into an emancipator, willing to sacrifice his life for a people he did not even know existed a few months before.

Although it is not the first book Bujold wrote about the universe in which Verkosigan dwells, Falling Free is a good introduction to the series.

Tuesday, 22 November 2016 11:39:00 (GMT Standard Time, UTC+00:00)
# Saturday, 19 November 2016

The Conquering Sword of Conan is the third and final volume of the complete Conan stories by Robert E. Howard.

I felt a feeling of accomplishment by completing these stories - finally experiencing the source material of this iconic pulp character after a lifetime of awareness.

Most of this volume consists of the final 5 short stories published by Howard. Much of the action takes place in Africa. Conquering Sword also includes a number of story synopses and first drafts, giving an insight into Howard's writing process. Howard wrote for pulp magazines (primarily Weird Tales) and struggled to make a living during the great depression, so he would often rewrite rejected stories and change the characters and/or locations before re-submitting them.

In the 5 completed stories Conan continues his travels around the world of the Hyborian Age, hunting for treasure and battling bad guys, sorcerers, and monsters. In Beyond the Black River and The Black Stranger, Conan has his first encounter with Native Americans (known as "Picts"), who sail to Africa from a set of islands that would eventually rise into the continent of North America after the destruction of Atlantis.

The stories do not lack for adventure and many contain a moral lesson in contrasting Conan's barbarian code of ethics and chivalry with the hypocrisy and treachery of more civilized men.

Still, there are elements of Howard's writing with which I am uncomfortable. He routinely portrays women as the spoils of war, often hypersexualizing them. Worse, there is often a direct correlation between darkness of skin and savagery.  The brown-skinned people of Conan's world tend to be the most superstitious, the least intelligence, and - in some cases - cannibals.

I'm willing to take into account that Robert Howard grew up in the American south over a century ago and that his prejudices were almost certainly influenced by his environment and his peers. Given our country's current racial division and polarizing political rhetoric, this seems a timely and relevant question to ask ourselves. Can we separate art from the artist? Can we forgive him his prejudices if he grew up in a place and time where those prejudices were the norm among his peers.
Do we vilify Thomas Jefferson because he owned slaves? Or do we forgive him because he grew up in an era when every gentleman farmer owned slaves?  Personally, I am willing to forgive Howard, acknowledging how the artist he was likely socialized. Still, I fully acknowledge my views are filtered through the lens of the life of a white male and I welcome comments of others - particularly women and people of color who have read these stories.

If you are willing to look past or forgive Howard for his racism and misogyny, the Conan stories will entertain you.

Saturday, 19 November 2016 08:30:00 (GMT Standard Time, UTC+00:00)
# Wednesday, 05 October 2016

This was not the book I was expecting.

Joe Jackson's recording career has spanned decades - from the late 1970s until the present. But this memoir ends where that recording career began - with the release of his excellent debut album Look Sharp.

"A Cure For Gravity: A Musical Pilgrimage" details Jackson's education and the evolution of his musical style before he secured a recording contract.

Jackson was an outsider in the working class town of Portsmouth, England. He was sickly and introspective and no good at sports, which made him unpopular with his classmates. And he was obsessed with music, which made him odd.

But he loved music enough to pursue it - almost single-mindedly - for his entire youth. He attended the Royal Academy of Music during the Day, while performing at small pubs nights and weekends with rock & roll or punk bands. He was the musical director of a cabaret in order to save money to record an album of his own material.

Through Jackson's education and his musical experience, he encountered many characters and many different styles of music and he was influenced by them all. This helps to explain why his recorded music crosses so many different genres - from jazz to rock to reggae to new wave to classical. "When people ask who has influenced me", he writes, "I always sense that they're expecting to hear certain names: John Lennon, David Bowie, Graham Parker.  The truth is that I'm influenced by everything, but especially by the people I've worked with closely, people no one else has heard of."

Jackson's style is often clever and frequently self-effacing. He acknowledges his youthful awkwardness and his lack of success with women. And he tells stories of driving for hours and waiting all day outside a pub, then changing in a small restroom to perform for a small, audience that didn't want to hear a band or didn't like the music they played.  He speaks freely of his musical frustrations and his inability to find his voice. But his love of music kept him going.

Jackson was driven to succeed in music, never considering any other career. "I had to succeed in music," he insists. "I was no good at anything else."

Although Joe Jackson had a hit album at age 22, "A Cure for Gravity" chronicles what it took him to get there. The book gave me new insights into an artist I have loved since my high school days when I first heard his music on an A&M sampler LP and (a few months later) when I saw his concert at the Punch and Judy Theater in Grosse Pointe, MI. "A Cure for Gravity" is a delightful story that this lifetime Joe Jackson fan enjoyed immensely.

Joe Jackson in concert, 1979
(photo by D Giard)

Wednesday, 05 October 2016 10:59:00 (GMT Daylight Time, UTC+01:00)
# Saturday, 01 October 2016

Thousands of years ago, society began to collapse on the the planet Arbre. The intellectuals of the time retreated into concents - monasteries in which the occupants are sealed off from the rest of the world - sometimes for centuries at a time.

Although the concents were founded to preserve the knowledge of Arbre, most of the occupants (known as avouts) are kept ignorant and even forbidden from learning many things about the world around them.

Erasmas - an avout of the Concent of Saunt Edhar - has his world turned upside down when his friend and mentor Orolo discovers an alien spacecraft orbiting Arbre. Orolo is thrown out of the Concent for daring to use forbidden technology that allowed him to observe the spacecraft. Shortly afterward, Erasmus and his friends are also exiled and pursue Orolo to discover what he has learned.

The novel climaxes in a battle between the Arbrelings and one faction of the aliens.

It takes a while to get there as it explores the concept of how alternate versions of the same reality can manifest themselves in multiple cosmos and what happens when people move between these alternate realities.

Anathem satirizes the idea of those who try to preserve knowledge, but restrict access to new information and discovery. The novel succeeds brilliantly with its social satire and its attention to detail. For some, it may fall short with its slow pacing and lack of action.

If you prefer your science fiction more cerebral than swashbuckling, Anathem is for you.

Saturday, 01 October 2016 08:34:00 (GMT Daylight Time, UTC+01:00)
# Wednesday, 24 August 2016

"Apprenticeship Patterns: Guidance for the Aspiring Software Craftsman" by Dave Hoover and Adewale Oshineye is written primarily for people entering the profession of software development.

Hoover and Oshineye draw upon their years in the industry to provide advice on how to succeed - how to advance your skills and improve your career.

They present this advice as "patterns" - a term taken from the software design patterns made  famous by Gamma, Helm, Johnson, and Vlissides. Like the software patterns, these Apprenticeship Patterns favor general guidance over explicit step-by-step instructions. Often a chapter will end with a qualifying sentence, warning the user not to be too dogmatic in following an approach to its logical extreme.

Each pattern is presented briefly and concisely and includes action items that the user can apply to his or her own career.

Many of the Patterns provide advice on how to approach education. They begin with learning your first language and "Unleash your Enthusiasm" to motivate your quest for knowledge; applying that education to "Concrete Skills" in your job and  "Confront Your Ignorance" to recognize and address gaps in your knowledge.

Later chapters provide advice as you begin to master skills, including "Reflect As You Work" and "Record What You Learn".

Ultimately the book promotes Software Craftsmanship - a growing movement designed to improve the overall quality of the software industry. The authors relate the book's patterns to how they achieved a level of craftsmanship in their own careers. Hoover and Oshineye provide numerous examples of times that they and people they know applied these patterns in real-world scenarios.

Apprenticeship Patterns was published in 2009, but remains relevant today as thousands of young people continue to pour into the software industry. In fact, this book is more relevant than the vast majority of technical books written at the same time. This advice does not go out of date as new technologies are developed.

People beginning their software careers will benefit from this book. So did I, despite the fact that I switched to this profession decades ago. I read  good advice on expanding my skill sets; and I read good advice to pass on as I mentor junior developers.

I wish this book had existed when I first entered this profession.

Wednesday, 24 August 2016 13:41:53 (GMT Daylight Time, UTC+01:00)
# Tuesday, 02 August 2016

In The Stand, Stephen King tackles the question: What would become of society if nearly all of the people disappeared within a few weeks.

At the beginning of the novel a biological weapon leaks from a quarantined military base and people begin to get very ill very quickly. The U.S. government tries to cover up its error and the weapon it created - often through violent means - but within 2 months, over 99% of the world's population is dead.

In America, the survivors group together - drawn by visions in their dreams. Some travel to Boulder, CO to join with 108-year-old Mother Abigail and some go to Las Vegas, NV to follow the the mysterious Randall Flagg. Mother Abigail has a good heart and talks of love for one another;  Randall Flagg is a malevolent wizard who delights in the chaos created by this epidemic.

Along the way to Boulder and Las Vegas and the final confrontation between the two camps, King explores a myriad of characters and their journey to either the light side or dark side. Even many who end up in Boulder with Abigail are tempted by the dark wizard Flagg. The characters are rich and their back stories before the disaster help us to understand their actions after.

I loved the evolution of characters: Larry Underwood was a self-absorbed and irresponsible rock star before the plague, but found himself willing to sacrifice himself for those he loved after the tragedy; Trash Can Man and Nadine Cross cannot avoid the blackness of their souls and where their destiny takes them, but they still find a way to partially redeem their lives.

It's not surprising that many King fans list this as their favourite novel. King pits good against evil; God against the Devil; chaos against order; and the collapse of civilization against attempts to rebuild it. The climax is a long time coming, but the payoff is excellent.  I've read over a dozen of King's books and this is now my favourite.

Tuesday, 02 August 2016 14:14:00 (GMT Daylight Time, UTC+01:00)
# Sunday, 10 July 2016

The legend of King Arthur is so familiar to most of us that it is surprising to find a fresh re-telling of this story - particularly one as clever as T.H. White's The Once and Future King.

White recounts the life Arthur from his education as a boy by the string wizard Merlin to his rise to the throne, where he conquers England and attempts to use his power to bring a new age of peace and chivalry to his downfall at the hands of his enemies - particularly his son Mordred.

The story spans 4 books - The Sword in the Stone, The Queen of Air and Darkness, the Ill-Made Knight, and The Candle In The Wind. Originally, White planned a fifth book - The Book Merlyn, but he did not finish this before his death and many of the stories from this book found their way into the other volumes. The story is told chronologically and follows Arthur and his closest friends and enemies throughout his life. Each book stands on its own but is best read as an entire series, in order. (The Book of Merlyn is optional reading.)

White often omits details of Arthur's story, referring the reader to Sir Thomas Malory's "Le Morte d'Arthur". Instead, White focuses on the characters' thoughts and feelings and motivations. How did Merlin's training of the boy Arthur affect King Arthur's philosophy during his reign? What were psychological damaged was caused Lancelot when he was drugged and tricked into losing his virginity? Why does Mordred hate his father and plot revenge?

The books become darker as the series advances; The Sword in the Stone is a lighthearted story featuring bumbling knights and anthropomorphic animals; while the final 2 books focus on the cost of human sin and weakness.

Through it all, White maintains his wit and keeps the characters fresh and alive.

I recommend this series for any fan of the Arthurian Legend.

My notes on the individual books are below.

The Sword in the Stone

A fun story of the youth of King Arthur, when he went by the unflattering nickname "The Wort" and served at the castle of Sir Ector, doing the bidding of Ector's son Kay, until he met the wizard Merlin in the forest and convinced Ector to hire Merlin as his tutor.

Much of Merlin's tutelage consisted of turning the Wort into various animals and allowing him to interact with other animals, learning their ways and their values. We will see these lessons put into practice when Arthur later rises to become King of England.

The Queen of Air and Darkness

Arthur battles King Lot to gain control of Britain and decides to form his famous Knights of the Round Table, who will promote and enforce chivalry in his new kingdom. We are also introduced to Arthur's half-sister Morgause (the "queen" of the book's title), who plots to seduce Arthur through witchcraft and give birth to Mordred, leading to Arthur's destruction.

Although this book is short and contains less action than others in the series, its introduction of key characters and concepts make it an important book in the series.

The Ill-Made Knight

This volume follows Sir Lancelot - his arrival at Camelot and friendship with King Arthur; his affair with Arthur's wife - Queen Guinever; his wanderings in search of both the Holy Grail and redemption for betraying his friend's trust; and his return to Camelot and his battles with his own conscience.

Lancelot is universally regarded as the greatest knight in the world and he believes that his power comes from his purity. But when he loses that purity (he betrays his friend's trust and also fathers Gallahad out of wedlock), he loses not only his power, but his self-confidence and, for a while, his senses.

Candle in the Wind

The climax of the story in which Arthur's rivals (led by Mordred) convince Arthur to try and execute his wife for adultery and to go to war with Lancelot. Arthur's adherence to his law is tested against his love and loyalty to his wife and best friend.

The Book of Merlyn

Unpolished and incomplete, but published after White's death. Merlyn returns to Camelot when Arthur is an old man. He takes Arthur back to some of the animals who had originally taught him lessons of justice, peace, and war and Arthur begins to find meaning in his life, which he had suspected was wasted. Some of these stories found their way into The Sword in the Stone.

Sunday, 10 July 2016 20:18:39 (GMT Daylight Time, UTC+01:00)
# Saturday, 23 April 2016

The Bloody Crown of Conan is the second volume in Del Rey's 3-volume set of the complete Conan stories by Robert Howard. While volume 1: The Coming of Conan the Cimmerian included mostly short stories, this book contains 3 longer works: The People of the Black Circle; The Hour of the Dragon; A Witch Shall Be Born.

BloodyCrownOfConan The Hour of the Dragon is a full novel that takes Conan across many countries of the Hyborian world. It is set in a time when Conan has risen to be king of Aquilonia. Conan's enemies resurrect a dead spirit to enchant the king and steal his throne. Conan's quest to regain the crown leads him across much of the known world, where he fights numerous bottles and raises an army to retake Aquilonia. The action and the epic sweep of this story make it one of Howard's best and enhances this collection.

The other 2 novellas, while not as long or involved as The Hour of the Dragon are more complex than most of Howard's short stories.  By this point in his career, Howard seems to have hit his stride. The action flows freely, if violently, and we can enjoy the adventures of Conan who uses his nearly superhuman strength and skills to overcome nearly impossible odds.

The collection ends with a few uninteresting first drafts of Howard's unpublished Conan stories, followed by a fascinating essay analyzing the themes of the Conan series and the evolution of the character.

For escapism and adventure, it is difficult to beat these stories.

Saturday, 23 April 2016 16:28:00 (GMT Daylight Time, UTC+01:00)
# Tuesday, 05 April 2016

Growing up, I was always aware of Conan the Barbarian. I knew of the comics but it was not a title I read regularly; I saw the Robert Howard books in the bookstore, but I passed over them for the stories by Edgar Rice Burroughs; I watched the Schwarznegger movie but did not watch it twice.

Recently, I decided to read the Conan source material. Del Ray has gathered together all of Howard's Conan stories into a 3-volume set: The Coming of Conan the Cimmerian; The Bloody Crown of Conan; and The Conquering Sword of Conan.

Robert Howard wrote dozens of stories of the iconic barbarian. These were originally published in pulp magazines of the 1940s, such as "Weird Tales".

The stories are presented in the order they were written, which matches neither their publication order nor the chronological order of Conan's "life". There is very little continuity to the stories. Conan wanders the world, moving from adventure to adventure. If we order them chronologically, we see Conan as first a lone thief, then a mercenary and a pirate, a warlord, and finally king of the empire he conquers.

Unlike many fantasy characters, Conan exists on our world, but lived during the fictional Hyborian Age, which took place after the destruction of Atlantis, but before most of recorded history. Many of the places to which Conan travels are places that still exist today with different names (Iranistan for Iran, Afghulistan for Afghanistan, Kambulja for Cambodia, and Vendhya for India,Pakistan & Bangladesh). Magicians, gods, demons, and giant deadly creatures were common in these lands during the Hyborian Age.

It is a world marked by wars and brutality, in which wars are common. There are civilizations, but a common theme of these stories contrasts the low morals of "civilized" aristocrats with Conan's own moral code.

Conan is a brutal killer; but he has a strong moral code. In one story, he agrees to kill the master of a beautiful enslaved woman in return for her promise of sex. After fulfilling his end of the bargain, the woman flees to avoid Conan. He finds her (and rescues her from a new threat) but does not hold her to the bargain.

Although Conan uses his violence to further agenda, he has his own code of honor and looks down on those who condone slavery or torture for pleasure.

When reading these stories, one has to deal with stereotypes and imagery that strike many of us as insensitive today. Women serve mostly as props in Howard's stories - scantily-clad spoils of battle who exist to be rescued by Conan - or as hyper sexualized amazons. The black men in these stories are often savage and superstitious; and we hear descriptions of cunning hooked-nose men in turbans. If you can accept these stories are a product of an earlier century, you can enjoy them more.

This volume concludes with some incomplete stories. It's fine to skip these but I read them for completeness.

I enjoyed my journey into the stories of Conan. The action is abundant (if often violent); and Howard provides drama within the confines of stories that typically have a  short and simple plot.

Tuesday, 05 April 2016 14:40:15 (GMT Daylight Time, UTC+01:00)
# Tuesday, 10 November 2015

The nice thing about Fundamentals of Azure: Microsoft Azure Essential by Michael Collier and Robin Shahan is that it assumes no prior knowledge of Azure or cloud computing. Each chapter describes the technology and walks the user through how to implement that technology using Microsoft Azure.

The step-by-step instructions are very explicit, even including screenshots of each step. Collier and Shahan take you through the process of the most common Azure tasks, including creating Web Apps; setting up Virtual Machines and Virtual Networks;

Of course, the Azure team is adding new features very quickly; so occasionally, you will run into instructions that do not exactly match the portal. But Collier and Shahan do a good job of explaining the concepts, so the user can often find their way through any inconsistencies.

If you are new to Azure and want an overview of the platform or if you want help with specific features, Fundamentals of Azure will help.

Michael Collier and David

Azure | Books
Tuesday, 10 November 2015 01:04:06 (GMT Standard Time, UTC+00:00)
# Saturday, 25 July 2015

The Milky Way galaxy of Vernor Vinge's A Fire Upon the Deep is divided into 4 major concentric sections, known as "Zones of Thought": 

The Unthinking Depths at the center of the galaxy, in which little or no intelligent life has evolved;

The Slow Zone, where the Earth exists. Intelligent life has evolved here but there is no true artificial intelligence and faster-than-light travel is not possible in this zone;

The Beyond, where intelligent species have mastered faster-than-light travel and and advanced civilizations have arisen;

The Transcend, the home of mysterious races of hyper-intelligent beings.

The intelligence that exists in these zones is not a coincidence - something about the physical properties of the zones prevent species and societies from evolving beyond a given allowable intelligence and technology.

In the novel, a group of humans have migrated from the Slow Zone to the Beyond-Transcend border, where they discover and accidentally awaken a dormant entity in the Beyond. The entity - known as the Blight - travels into the Beyond, destroying entire solar systems and threatens to destroy all life in the galaxy. Most of the story follows various inhabitants of the galaxy as they try to defend themselves and their worlds from the oncoming Blight.

The two factions have each adopted a human child - siblings whose parents were killed when they got in the way of a Tine battle.

I liked the universe that Vinge creates. He never explains why each zone restricts technology, but the fact that it does explains why species and societies evolve as they do within each zone.

I like the creatures with which he populates his universe, especially the Tines - a sentient, but primitive race that resemble long-necked dogs and group together in small packs that share a single consciousness; and the Skroderiders - a plantlike species that are able to travel thanks to a special cart built for them millennia ago by an unknown benefactor.

And I liked the contrast between the civil war waging on the Tines' world to gain mastery over a small bit of land and the oncoming Blight, which destroyed everything in its path and headed toward that same world.

But I found it difficult to sympathize or identify with Vinge's characters or their trials as much as I wanted to.  Reading the story, I learned of death and love and trust and betrayal and they passed over me without moving me.

A Fire Upon the Deep was good for my head but it left my heart wanting more.

Saturday, 25 July 2015 12:16:00 (GMT Daylight Time, UTC+01:00)
# Wednesday, 24 June 2015

With a mere 135 pages, Orchestrated Knowledge by Peter Leeson doesn't appear very substantial at first glance. But Leeson packs a lot into a small package. The book describes ways that companies can improve their quality and productivity. Leeson distills his decades of management consulting into a set of brief chapters describing the mistakes he has witnessed at various companies and recommendations for correcting these mistakes.

Leeson talks a lot about quality. He writes:

"The first thing that we need to consider in any organization is that quality is the most important thing. The quality of your work defines you. Whoever you are, whatever you do, I can find the same products and services cheaper somewhere else. But your quality is your signature."

PeterLeeson According to Leeson, Quality is achieved by people - not by tools, as so many believe. He urges organizations to empower their employees by listening to their ideas and allowing them apply their own creativity in performing their jobs and directing changes about their area. Employees will be happier and happier employees tend to be more productive and produce higher quality goods and services. Most organizations avoid this because they fear the risk of exposing flaw in their system and because they don't trust their employees.

OrchestratedKnowledge Communication is a large focus of this book. Employees lose motivation when they don't know why changes are implemented, what goals the company hopes to achieve, and what projects are coming in the future. Communicating with employees not only empowers them, but allows them to focus their energies on the best way to solve problems, rather than on performing a set of rote tasks.

The largest chapter describes what Leeson calls the "Orchestrated Knowledge Organization", which breaks the company into cells - each with a specific set of responsibilities and an area of quality on which to focus.

Leeson advocates evolutionary change over revolutionary change - keep what works in your organization and build on it, rather than reconstructing everything - a high-risk strategy that is difficult to adopt.

Orchestrated Knowledge does not provide many step-by-step instructions for your company to follow. But it does provide a lot of guidance that you can apply to your own organization to avoid mistakes and make it more successful.



My interview with Peter Leeson, May 2014

Peter Leeson’s blog

Wednesday, 24 June 2015 15:37:55 (GMT Daylight Time, UTC+01:00)
# Friday, 22 May 2015

In 2048, historians are not content to study history by reading old documents and visiting ruins. The historians in Oxford have developed a time machine and they use this machine to travel back in time and observe historic events first-hand. 

In Connie Willis's The Doomsday Book, young historian Kivrin travels to the 14th-century to view life in the Middle Ages. The Time Travel technology has built-in safeguards to prevent time paradoxes, but 2 crises strike shortly after Kivrin goes back in time:
An influenza epidemic strikes 21st-century Oxford, prompting government officials to quarantine the city and debilitating many working on the time-travel project and prompting the department head to shut down the time machine, preventing anyone from rescuing Kivrin. 
An error in the time calculations has placed Kivrin 2 decades later than they planned, leaving her in the path of the bubonic plague, just as it reaches the region of England she is exploring.

The story follows 2 parallel paths - Kivrin interacting with the locals in the 14th Century and her mentor Mr. Dunworthy trying to engineer her rescue.  Time seems to move at the same rate in both periods and both protagonists face similar challenges - a mysterious disease disrupting their society., ignorant authority figures obstructing their efforts, and the illness and deaths of those who might help them.

The book has some flaws. Kivrin's story in the 14th century is much more compelling than the 21st century story. The characters are more real and more tragic. And the science doesn't hold up as well as I would like - the 21st century protagonists have discovered the secrets of time travel but struggle to communicate because the land lines are not working properly.

But I liked it.

I liked the historical perspective of The Doomsday Book; I liked the interweaving of the characters; I liked the plausible descriptions of the physical rules of time travel (a technology that might or might not be possible); I liked the fact that the protagonist was female (rare in time travel stories); and I liked the way Willis drew parallels between the two stories taking place "simultaneously" in different centuries.

For a story with sympathetic characters, suffering a crisis of medicine and a crisis of faith, Doomsday Book holds up very well.

Friday, 22 May 2015 14:19:09 (GMT Daylight Time, UTC+01:00)
# Friday, 13 March 2015

I'm a little surprised I enjoyed this book as much as I did. Other than a brief period in my teens when I was obsessed with Asteroids and Defender, I've never been much into video games; My kids kicked my butt at Halo and various EA Sports games for years until I finally stopped playing; And, although I created a few computer games last year - including the unforgettable Spinach Top series, I've spent only a small percentage of my life creating video games.

But I admire those who can create these games - the people with enough imagination to conceive of a great game idea and enough technical skills to execute that idea.

Honoring the Code: Conversations with Great Game Designers put me in touch with those people. Video game enthusiast Matt Barton sought out the programmers and artists who worked on many of his favourite games and he asked them about their lives and their work. This book is primarily a transcript of those interviews.

Interviews include:

George Sanger, who composes and compiles music for video games, including 7th Guest. His main advice: "Be nice to each other".

John Romero, who built the influential first-person-shooter game Doom. Romeros was hailed as a rock star in the industry until his marketing department published a poorly-thought advertisement with the text: "John Romero is about to make you his bitch", which turned many fans against him.

The reclusive Rebecca Heineman, who was born William Heineman, but changed her name when she transgendered to a female as an adult. Heineman earned the nickname "Burger" by a habit of buying a sack of hamburgers, storing them in her desk, and eating them over the course of several days.

My favourite interview is in the last chapter - Paul Reiche and Fred Ford seem to be having the most fun.  For example, they started a company named "Toys for Bob" and they chose that name only because they liked the sound of it.  Although there is no actual "Bob", everyone in the company had to make up a story about who the "Real Bob" was.

One can read this book to learn and copy the habits of great games designers. Although there is a wide spectrum of personalities among the interviewees, most of them share a passion for video games that drives them to work long hours designing, building, and playing these games. And most of them began this passion early in life - well before high school.

One nice thing about this book is that you can read the chapters in any order - each interview stands on its own.

The author provides an introduction to the book - describing his motivation for conducting and publishing these interviews. I was surprised he did not end it with a conclusion - summarizing all he had learned.

For me, the book was interesting because I enjoyed a peek into the lives of people who have a passion for what they do for a living.

Friday, 13 March 2015 11:46:15 (GMT Standard Time, UTC+00:00)
# Sunday, 15 February 2015

The Diamond Age takes place primarily in a future Shanghai, where governments have been replaced by "phyles" or "claves", bound more by culture than by geographic borders; and where nanotechnology dominates everyday life, providing everything from weapons that can kill a man from the inside to food synthesis to a book that can create a story tailored to its owner.

One such book - A Young Lady's Illustrated Primer is stolen - first by John Percival Hackworth, who plans to give it to his daughter Fiona; then by Harv, a tough street kid, who gives the book to his younger sister Nell. Nell grows up with the Primer, which tells her stories of Princess Nell, a fantasy version of Nell who travels through mythical lands on quest after quest. Princess Nell's story parallels that of the real-life Nell and she begins to think of the Primer and the "ractor" who reads the story aloud as a surrogate mother to replace Nell's own neglectful mother. As Nell grows older and runs away from her mother and her mother's abusive boyfriends she seeks comfort in the Primer.

Along with the stories of Nell and Princess Nell, The Diamond Age weaves the story of the unfortunate Hackworth, who seeks to retrieve the book he lost and discover the secret for which it was made.

The Diamond Age book explores technologies role in society and the importance of human interaction, even in a world with advanced technologies. There are many copies of the Primer being consumed by many young girls; but Nell benefits from hers more than other girls do because hers is read by a real-live (if anonymous) ractor and the two connect because of this.

While not as clever or exciting as Stephenson's earlier novel - the excellent Snow Crash - The Diamond Age is a very good story and paints an intriguing picture of a society and the people in it.

There are many characters and sub-plots in The Diamond Age and Stephenson weaves them together brilliantly. In the end, they all come together in a climax that was a bit more confusing than I would have liked; but the journey to that point made this novel worthwhile.

Sunday, 15 February 2015 11:33:00 (GMT Standard Time, UTC+00:00)
# Wednesday, 04 February 2015

What would happen if scientists discovered a giant comet entering our solar system and headed in the general direction of Earth? What if that comet actually collided with Earth? How would we react to the possibility and to the catastrophic events?

This is the premise of Purnell and Niven's Lucifer's Hammer.

The comet is named “Hamner-Brown” - in part for Tim Hamner, the millionaire / amateur astronomer who discovered it. But the public quickly applies new nicknames such as "Hammer of God" and "Lucifer's Hammer". The day the comet finally strikes Earth is forever known as "Hammerfall". The Hammer strikes suddenly with an unmatched fury, launching tidal waves, massive floods, and months of cloud cover and rain. Millions are killed in a matter of hours and nearly all the infrastructure holding together modern civilization is destroyed. The San Joaquin Valley becomes the San Joaquin Sea; the state of Texas is wiped out by a tidal wave thousands of feet high; earthquakes destroy major metropolitan areas all over the world; hurricanes decimate the US planes states; and the city of Washington - along with the US government - is destroyed.

The main story of Lucifer's Hammer takes place mostly in central California and follows the lives of a few people with good intentions trying to survive the aftermath of Hammerfall. But survival is difficult because most of the world goes very crazy, very quickly. Within hours, looters are invading homes, stealing food and liquor and killing anyone in their way; within weeks some groups have turned to cannibalism for survival.

Local leaders establish a new martial law in some cities, while paramilitary groups roam the lands between the cities stealing and terrifying anyone they find.

Lucifer's Hammer book kept me engaged throughout. I could not wait to see what would happen next. From the study of the earthbound comet to the panic of the strike to the sudden change in lif for literally everyone the story moves forward with urgency. The characters are transformed by the disaster and we follow them through love triangles and survival in the wilderness and an attempt to quickly adapt to the new world. We meet Harvey ??? a documentary filmmaker, who struggles to make himself useful after Hammerful; and ??? the mailman, who faithfully continues to deliver the mail, even after he loses his truck and is attacked by bandits. And Sentaro Jelison (???), who organizes a mountain town - The Stronghold - into a sanctuary with himself as commander-in-cheif; and ???, a black militant who views Hammerfall as a chance for him and his black brothers to finally gain the power they deserve. And Hamner himself, no longer a millionaire playboy but now a household name for his role in the comet's discovery.

The climax of the story features a battle between the protagonists at The Stronghold fighting off an invasion by The New Brotherhood - marauding cannibals intent on destroying all people and civilization in their path.

Although the chances against a giant comet hitting Earth are literally astronomical, this novel depicts a believable version of events that would happen if such a catastrophe occurred.

I was finished with this book before I knew it.

Wednesday, 04 February 2015 14:27:00 (GMT Standard Time, UTC+00:00)
# Sunday, 25 January 2015

Richard Mayhew was a nobody.

He worked a dead-end job in London and his fiancé walked all over him. Everyone walked all over him.

Door was the daughter of an aristocrat from a mysterious parallel world beneath London. She had the ability to create and open portals to wherever she wanted to go.

One day, Richard encountered Door, bleeding and bruised lying in a London alley. To the frustration of his fiancée, Richard decided to take her to his flat to keep her safe and to heal. This act of kindness set in motion the events that overturned Richard's life. Soon, 2 cutthroat thugs came looking for Door and threatening Richard. The next day, everyone in Richard's life had forgotten that he ever existed. Before long, his work desk was moved and his apartment was rented to strangers.

Hoping to regain his life, Richard followed Door into London Below - a mysterious world, invisible to most Londoners and populated by the outcasts of the city above.  he found Door and helped her on her quest, while evading the cutthroats on their trail. Along the way they encountered a fallen angel, a trained assassin, an invisible roaming marketplace, a haunted bridge draped in inky, deadly blackness, and a host of unusual characters.

In Neverwhere, Neil Gaiman builds a believable world of rejects and outcasts and makes them sympathetic to the reader. The story moves quickly and easily from mystery to action. The characters are rich and quirky and interesting - at times ridiculous; at times, terrifying. Gaiman's narrative is full of wit, while continuing to advance the story.

The reader feels the pain of Richard as he moves from being figuratively lost in the "real" world of London to being literally lost in the mysterious London Below. 

Fans of clever writing and adventure stories will enjoy Neverwhere.

Sunday, 25 January 2015 01:25:40 (GMT Standard Time, UTC+00:00)
# Monday, 05 January 2015

In the early 19th-century England of Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell, the existence of magic is a given. Everyone knows of the Raven King, who escaped from the Fairy kingdom to rule northern England and introduce magic to the Britons centuries before.

But, in 1806, no magic has been seen in England for years. Those who call themselves "magician" are only theoretical magicians, meaning that they study magic and magicians, but lack the ability to cast spells themselves. One day, a group of theoretical magicians discover the reclusive Mr. Norrell, who proves himself to be a formidable practical magician - the first of his kind seen for decades. A few years later, Jonathan Strange emerges - a young man with even stronger magical abilities, but with no training in how to use them.

Norrell takes on Strange as an apprentice, but Norrell is careful not to teach the young man too much. Together, they become celebrated magicians and use their powers to help Lord Wellington and the British Empire defeat the Emperor Napoleon.  Later, Strange and Norrell split and become rivals. This turns very bad after Norrell tries to discredit Strange and Strange embraces madness as a way to contact the malevolent fairies who live on the other side of Hell and possess powerful magic.

The story shows the rise to power of two talented men and the corruption brought by that rise. Both men are tempted to enlist the aid of the malevolent fairy race in order to boost their magical abilities and increase their reputation. But the fairies, who rule a kingdom beyond Hell, are malevolent and untrustworthy. Dealing with fairies risks the lives and souls of all around the magicians.

The contrast between Strange and Norrell makes for a great story. Norrell is bookish, deliberate, and secretive. He buys up all the books on magic he can find, in order to keep other magicians from reading them. Strange is adventurous and tries to expand his horizons - even going so far as to try training other magicians.

Both magicians struggle with the dark side of magic. Norrell's first attempt at summoning a fairy allows him to raise a young woman from the dead. This makes Norrell a national celebrity; however, the consequences are disastrous - the fairy maintains control over the woman, transporting her each night to his castle on the far side of Hell. Norrell vows never to try again. Strange reads of how the Raven King used Fairy Magic and believes he can summon and control a Fairy. He concludes that he must become mad in order to summon a fairy, so he uses magic and drugs to make himself temporarily insane. The Fairy appears and more disaster ensues. The Fairy of the story - known only as "the man with thistle down hair" controls a number of humans, including the woman he helped raise from the dead; Stephen Black, a servant to whom he promises the throne of England; and Strange's wife. Even King George III's famous bouts with insanity are attributed to the man with the thistle down hair.

I really enjoyed this book. I liked the characters and the adventures; I liked the relationship between Norrell and Strange and how it evolved over the years. I liked the ethical struggles of the magicians, such as whether it was acceptable to use the dark fairy magic to do good deeds; and I liked the style of the book, which reminded me of an English historical text, complete with added footnotes.

If you are looking to explore a world that could have been and believable  characters, I highly recommend Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell.

Monday, 05 January 2015 15:00:00 (GMT Standard Time, UTC+00:00)
# Wednesday, 10 December 2014

"Small Gods" is the thirteenth book in Terry Pratchett's Discworld series.

Pratchett's Discworld universe contains a plethora of gods. The vast majority of these gods are tiny, swarming invisibly and unnoticed in the desert. But a few gain a following of worshippers, which increases both the size and the power of these fortunate gods.  One such god was Om, who was so powerful in the country of Omnia that the priests who ruled the country would tolerate the worship (or even mention) of any other god. Om would typically manifest himself as a giant bull; but, when the story opens, he has somehow been transformed into a small tortoise. Om is preoccupied with his reduction in status - from powerful being to to tiny reptile - and with avoiding the talons of hungry eagles circling overhead.

One of Om's problems is that the people of Omnia don't really believe in him - they only go through the motions of their religion out of fear of the priests and the mysterious Quisition, who capture, judge, and torture accused heretics. Another of Om's problems is that he cares very little for the lives and fates of those who worship him - he only desires their faith because it brings him greater power, but he cannot even remember the names of his own prophets.

While struggling in his tortoise form, Om encounter Brutha, an illiterate student/servant with a good heart. Brutha is the only one in Discworld who can see or hear Om because he is the only one who believes in him without the threats from the Omnian church. Brutha is troubled to discover his god is not omnipresent or omniscient or caring or even polite. But he agrees to help him return to his former glory.

Small Gods is filled with quirky characters and witty prose. Like all the Discworld novels, every scene overflows with silliness. Pratchett describes a philosopher with the following:

His philosophy was a mixture of three famous schools -- the Cynics, the Stoics and the Epicureans -- and summed up all three of them in his famous phrase, "You can't trust any bugger further than you can throw him, and there's nothing you can do about it, so let's have a drink."

Or this witty exchange between the leaders of two countries:

"Slave is an Ephebian word. In Om we have no word for slave," said Vorbis.
"So I understand," said the Tyrant. "I imagine that fish have no word for water."

But Small Gods also biting satire about the dangers of religious zealotry and the emptiness of blindly following tradition. With Small Gods, Pratchett reaches beyond making us laugh and makes us think.

Wednesday, 10 December 2014 14:49:00 (GMT Standard Time, UTC+00:00)
# Wednesday, 03 December 2014

Stephen R. Donaldson introduced Thomas Covenant in his 1977 novel Lord Foul's Bane. He continued the story in The Ilearth War and concluded the Trilogy with The Power That Preserves. Donaldson went on to write a second Trilogy about this character, followed by a 4-part series titled "The Last Chronicles of Thomas Covenant". This review covers only the first Trilogy.

Thomas Covenant was a bestselling author with a good home and a loving wife and infant son, when he was suddenly struck ill with leprosy. The disease cost him 2 fingers on his right hand and his wife, who left Thomas for fear their son would catch his disease. His neighbors rejected him out of fear and ignorance, but he defied them by walking into town each week to collect his mail.

On one such trip, Thomas was crossing the street and nearly run down by a police car. When he awoke, he found himself in a strange world, known only as The Land, facing the horrific villain Lord Foul, who commanded him to deliver a message to the people of The Land.

The Lords and commoners of The Land noticed Covenant's missing fingers and his white gold wedding ring and assumed he was the reincarnation of Berek Halfhand, a heroic figure from The Land's past, who lost his fingers battling the evil Lord Foul with the powerful force of white gold. They believed that Covenant was sent to The Land to protect them and to defeat Lord Foul.

Their faith in Covenant and their non-violent code caused them to forgive Covenant's every sin and shortcoming. And he has many.

When he enters the Land, Covenant's leprosy is magically cured, restoring feelings to his nerve endings. The rush of long-unfelt sensation is so overwhelming that he rapes Lena, a young woman who had shown kindness to him. Even this betrayal does not shatter the faith of either the people of The Land or of Lena herself.

Time and again throughout the trilogy, the Land's inhabitants sacrifice themselves for Covenant, hoping he will use his power and defeat Lord Foul; but, Covenant repeatedly defers, making no effort to learn how to harness the power of his white gold ring and often pushing his responsibility onto others.

Covenant is magically transported back to his own world; but is drawn back to The Land two more times with the expectation that he will rescue its inhabitants. Most of the time, the inhabitants are disappointed. Each time, he returns to The Land years have passed in this magical world, even though only a few weeks have passed in his own.

In the world of high fantasy, there are many unlikely heroes, but few as unlikeable as Thomas Covenant.

Covenant is reluctant to take on the responsibility of battling Lord Foul. During his years as a leper, he has learned to be extremely cautious because he no longer has nerve endings to warn him of impending danger. He carries this caution into The Land, despite no longer needing it. Worse, Covenant seems incompetent as The Land's heroes and does not even recognize the powers he has such as the magic that white gold holds in The Land. He leaves disappointment and betrayal almost everywhere he goes, until his final encounter with Lord Foul at the end of the third book.

Overall, I enjoyed this trilogy. The Land suffered under Lord Foul and their chosen hero could not help them; but ultimately Covenant found his strength and did what he needed to do.  The characters were interesting enough to hold my attention for three books; but I don't know if or when I'll return to The Land and read the remaining seven.

Wednesday, 03 December 2014 09:49:00 (GMT Standard Time, UTC+00:00)
# Tuesday, 30 September 2014

Often, it is better to show us how to do something than to tell us. Samidip Basu’s Real World Windows 8 Development does both.

Basu begins the book by describing the basics of a Windows 8 application – controls, navigation, data binding, etc. Next, he covers more advanced features, such as remote debugging and accessing the hardware features on your PC or tablet.

Along the way, he demonstrates each concept by adding features to his sample – a book catalog application.

I found this book educational – in large part because both the code and the writing are straightforward and free of clutter. I learned more from downloading and exploring the sample code than I did from the text.

This book serves as a solid introduction to Windows 8 development and as a reference for intermediate developers to use.


Tuesday, 30 September 2014 12:20:00 (GMT Daylight Time, UTC+01:00)
# Tuesday, 02 September 2014

In The Mists of Avalon, Marion Zimmer Bradley tackles the legend of King Arthur. Bradley breathes fresh life into the story by focusing on the women of Arthurian Britain, who tend to be marginalized in other tellings of  this story. Arthur, Lancelet, Merlin, and the Round Table knights appear in this story, but only as minor characters.

Avalon is a magical land that exists slightly outside the world of mortal men - surrounded by water and hidden by mystical mists. Only certain people can pass through the mists from England to Avalon and they can pass through only at certain times. Avalon is a matriarchal society ruled by Druid priestesses; the high priestess holds the title "Lady of the Lake". Avalon obeys most of the laws of the natural universe, but it does not exist on a map and the Druids appear to have limited magical powers. At the beginning of this story, relations are good between Britain and Avalon and Avalon is still connected to the world of mortal men. By contrast, the Fairy Lands have become so disconnected  with the physical world that time moves at a different rate there and they interact very little with the men and women beyond their borders.

The primary conflict of the story arises because Arthur gains the crown of Britain helped, in part, by the Avalon priestesses, who gave him the powerful sword Excalibur and its magical scabbard that prevents protects him in battle. A few years after gaining the throne, Arthur resolves to make Britain a Christian country, ignoring the Druids who helped him rise to power.

Primarily, the story focuses on Gwenhwyfar, who is Arthur's wife and queen, but who is in love with Arthur's best friend Lancelet; and Morgaine, Arthur's half-sister and father of Arthur's only son Mordred (the child was conceived during a pagan ritual at which neither sibling recognized the other).

The story follows the relationship of Morgaine and Gwenhwyfar, who begin as close friends but later become rivals and finally hateful adversaries, bent on the destruction of one another.

It is Gwenhwyfar who convinces Arthur to reject the Druids and declare Britain a Christian country and it is Morgaine who takes the most offense at this betrayal.

Morgaine is the most interesting character. She is a Druid priestess, eventually rising to become Lady of the Lake - the highest rank among the Druids of Avalon. She comes to hate Arthur for rejecting the Druids; She hates Gwenhwyfar for influencing Arthur to do so; and she hates The her former lover Merlin, who does not act to stop Arthur.

As time passes, Morgaine sinks toward madness, conspiring with her new lover Accolon in a disastrous assassination attempt; and capturing and executing the Merlin. Eventually, she softens her stance and accepts the direction in which the world is moving. Near the end of the story, Avalon has become far less relevant in the politics of Britain and - not coincidentally - it becomes far less physically connected to the real world surrounding it. At the end, an aged Morgaine accepts the fate of Britain and of Avalon as it slips deeper into the mists.

Ms. Bradley adds depth to characters that are marginalized or one-dimensional in earlier tellings of the story. Morgaine becomes a living, breathing person under Bradley's pen, rather than the spiteful witch painted by tradition. Gwenhwyfar is much more than the beautiful object in a love triangle - she is a strong politician and she knows how to bend Arthur to her will.

Whether or not you are a fan of the Arthurian legend, you will enjoy The Mists of Avalon.

Tuesday, 02 September 2014 17:34:29 (GMT Daylight Time, UTC+01:00)
# Saturday, 09 August 2014

The Thrawn Trilogy consists of 3 novels: Heir to the Empire, Dark Force Rising, and The Last Command. The books tell a story that takes place in a galaxy far away, a long time ago. But it is not as long ago as the events of the 6 Star Wars movies. The story begins a few years after the the Rebel victory at the Battle of Endor at the conclusion of Return of the Jedi. Although the Endor conflict and its aftermath left the Empire weakened and resulted in the deaths of Emperor Palpatine and Darth Vader, The Empire still maintains a formidable navy commanded by Grand Admiral Thrawn, a brilliant military tactician.

Han Solo and Princess Leia are now married and Leia is pregnant with their twins. Thrawn, in his quest to re-establish the Empire, enlists the services of Joruus C'baoth, the insane clone of a dead Jedi master, who is intent on enslaving Luke, Leia, and Leia's twins (the last of the Jedi line) and establishing himself as galactic dictator.

The rebels match wits with Thrawn across multiple planets, the battles flowing in favor of each in turn. Both sides try to enlist the help of neutral parties, such as a guild of smugglers led by Talon Karrde and the Noghri, a race tricked into decades of servitude by Darth Vader and the Empire. In the final book, our heroic rebels face off directly against Thrawn and C'baoth for control of the known galaxy.

These books are part of the Star Wars Expanded Universe (EU), the name given to books, games, and other media that describe the events of the Star Wars universe. Although LucasFilms recently announced that expanded universe stories are no longer considered canon, it is still fun to follow the further adventures of Luke, Leia, Han, Lando, C-3PO, and R2-D2. Zahn stays true to the characters created by Lucas. He also introduces fascinating new characters, such as Karrde, Thrawn, Mara Jade, and others, who appear in later EU stories.

Along the way, Zahn weaves an exciting tale of action and intrigue, loyalty, and betrayal. It's not the most intellectually stimulating tale but it is loads of fun. Like an unexpected visit from old freinds.

Saturday, 09 August 2014 14:33:48 (GMT Daylight Time, UTC+01:00)
# Sunday, 09 March 2014

"Windows Store App Development" by Pete Brown takes the reader through all aspects of building a Windows 8 application using C# and XAML.

The first two chapters describe the UI principles that make a successful Windows 8 application - an app that works for both touch and keyboard input; and an app that provides a good experience for the user.

The book is broken into 23 chapters - most of which cover some specific development concept or how to use a set of controls. For example, there is an entire chapter on various available text controls and how to use them to render great-looking text in your application.

My favourite chapter is "Controls, binding, and MVVM", which breaks down the Model-View-View Model pattern into easy-to-understand terms and shows how to apply this pattern in an Windows 8 application.

Overall, the book does an excellent job covering the key concepts of XAML development and diving deep into the use of the tools. It serves as both a reference book and as a manual to get started on this platform. I have used it as each of these.

The only drawback is that this book is specific to Windows 8 and does not cover any of the updates introduced in Windows 8.1. I don't know if Brown is planning an update to cover these. However, the vast majority of the book is still relevant, even if you are developing for Windows 8.1.

Review-Windows Store App Development by Pete BrownShortly after I acquired this book, Pete was kind enough to sign it for me. He preceded his autograph with the challenge: "Get off your ass and write some apps!" And I did. Thanks in part to Brown's inspiration, I now have 14 apps in the Windows Store.

If you are new to Windows 8 development, Brown's book is a good one to get started with.

Sunday, 09 March 2014 15:48:22 (GMT Standard Time, UTC+00:00)
# Wednesday, 28 August 2013

A “greenfield” application is one that is just getting started. It is named "greenfield" because it is reminiscent of a new building going up on a vacant lot that contains nothing but green grass prior to the start of construction.

By contrast, a “brownfield” application is one that has been going for some time (similar to an unfinished building surrounded by brown dirt where the grass used to be. Often, the code in a brownfield application is in a fragile state, contains excessive dependencies, unnecessary complexities and no automated tests. This describes most of the projects on which I find myself working.

Getting such code to a manageable state can be a challenge. One needs to understand the code, refactor methods and classes, break dependencies, and create automated tests.

Brownfield Application Development in .NET by Kyle Baley and Donald Belcham describes techniques for doing just that.

Baley and Belcham begin by introducing general concepts of the software development process (Unit Testing, Source Control), as well as some of the technical and non-technical challenges working with a brownfield project.

Each chapter begins with a set of pain points, then continues with ways to address that pain.

They focus on how to work with the code, describing algorithms for breaking dependencies and samples for using dependency injection and mock object frameworks.

Although not quite as comprehensive as Michael Feathers's excellent "Working Effectively with Legacy Code", this book focuses on the .NET languages, which makes it more relevant to my projects. In fact it addresses the current project on which I am working.

Brownfield Application Development in .NET is a good book for anyone who finds themselves working with code developed by someone else.

Wednesday, 28 August 2013 19:51:00 (GMT Daylight Time, UTC+01:00)
# Saturday, 10 August 2013

According to Michael Feathers, legacy code is any code that is not currently under test. This is often the code I end up working with.

To make matters worse, dependencies within a code base often make it difficult to get that code under test. In order to write an automated test, one must recreate all those dependencies within the test systems - a daunting task if those dependencies are external systems, such as databases or web services.

In "Working Effectively with Legacy Code", Feathers describes ways to attack "untestable" code.

He suggests using "sensing variables" to determine what the code is doing within a method and writing an automated test specifically to document the current behavior of a method.

He also recommends some ways to refactor code to break dependencies or replace them with fake objects inside your test. One effective technique is to identify a problem method you want to test; make it protected; subclass the class; override the problem method, replacing the dependencies with fake objects; then call the subclass from your test.

The book focuses mostly on object-oriented languages, such as C++, Java, Visual Basic, and C#; but there are a few examples in procedural languages, such as C. The examples are simple enough that I was able to follow them and mentally translate the concepts to C# (my language of choice), despite having no practical experience with the other languages.

Feathers ends the "Working Effectively with Legacy Code" with a set of refactoring patterns designed to apply the principles of the book. In each case, he identifies the specific challenge the pattern addresses and some of the tradeoffs you will encounter when implementing this pattern.

"Working Effectively with Legacy Code" provides an excellent foundation for anyone who finds themselves maintaining someone else's code (or their own code from years before). I have used it as a model on my current project - a mass of spaghetti code with database calls within the UI layer.

I recommend it for anyone who finds themselves maintaining a legacy code base.

Saturday, 10 August 2013 21:34:36 (GMT Daylight Time, UTC+01:00)
# Wednesday, 24 July 2013

What I liked about "Continuous Integration in .NET" by Marcin Kawalerowicz and Craig Berntson is that it does not assume any prior knowledge of continuous integration (CI) by the reader. It begins by discuss CI - its theory, goals, and tools - and it moves on from there.

It's often difficult for an organization to achieve CI all at once, so this book walks the reader through the various pieces of CI - source control, automated build, unit testing, continuous feedback, analysis, deployment. They go into detail on each concept, showing step-by-step how to get there with a variety of tools.

Kawalerowicz and Berntson take care not to focus on a single tool. The implementation of each concept is shown using Cruise Control .NET, Team City, and Team Foundation Server.

Continuous Integration in .NET is a very good book to get you up and running with automated build and deployment processes and moving into continuous integration, even if you have no experience with these concepts.

Agile | Books
Wednesday, 24 July 2013 20:34:00 (GMT Daylight Time, UTC+01:00)
# Monday, 22 July 2013

We can all agree that some code is better than others. But if you write code that compiles and meets all the user's requirements, is it possible to improve this code?

Robert C. Martin's answer is an emphatic "Yes". Although sloppy code can meet short-term requirements, it quickly becomes difficult to maintain. Clean Code, Martin argues, is easier to read, understand, and test; and safer to change. Our goal should be to write Clean Code.

Robert's C. Martin (sometimes affectionately referred to as "Uncle Bob") has compiled some guidance on writing clean code into a book with the self-describing title "Clean Code".

Martin did not write the entire book- he enlisted other software developers active in the Software Craftsmanship movement to contribute. Tim Ottinger, Michael Feathers, James Gremming, Jeff Langr, Kevin Wampler, and Brett Schuchert each contributed at least one chapter, outlining a specific idea of Clean Code.

Among the key concepts: Keep classes and methods small and narrowly focused, give meaningful names to variables; don't use comments as a replacement for difficult to read code; and avoid output parameters and an excessive number of parameters.

He follows up advice on craftsmanship with a set of case studies in which he describes the refactoring of existing code bases.

Although most of the examples are in Java and I am primarily a .NET developer, I found this book very useful and applicable to any language - particularly an object-oriented language, such as C#.

Code Complete was a good book for me to read when I did. I am in the process of refactoring some code that is very difficult to maintain. I knew that it is not clean, but found myself unable to articulate exactly why.

The book is not for beginners. You should have a solid understanding of your language and of OOP concepts before tackling it. But it provides excellent guidance on writing readable, maintainable and testable code.

Agile | Books
Monday, 22 July 2013 09:13:00 (GMT Daylight Time, UTC+01:00)
# Friday, 28 December 2012

Wouldn't it be great if you could get everything you ever wanted, everything you ever dreamed of, simply by wishing for it really hard? According to Rhonda Byrne, you can.

In her bestselling book "The Secret", Ms. Byrne and a few similar-thinking people advise that the path to success is to visualize what you want. Rhonda asserts that our thoughts are energy and this energy is emitted out of our brains and across the universe. The "Secret" of the title is that "like attracts like". In other words, whatever you think about and wish for will come true, whether you think positive thoughts or negative thoughts. Our mind sends out impulses of energy and attracts back to us whatever we are thinking. If we think about our debt, for example, more bills will arrive in the mail; however, if we shift our thinking and visualize money coming in, checks will appear in our mailbox in place of those bills. The universe will simply read our thoughts and transform itself accordingly.

She compares the universe to the story of the magic genie that comes out of the magic lamp proclaiming "Your wish is my command". The universe, she insists, is much like this genie; ready to grant our every wish as long as we wish it hard enough. Byrne offers no explanation why this should occur and urges the reader not to question how, but instead focus on positive thoughts, which, she insists, are the powerful force that will change your life.

If I sound skeptical, it's not because I reject all of Ms. Byrne's ideas. I believe in the power of a positive mental attitude; I believe that the secret to happiness is the belief that we can change our life for the better; I believe that optimism can contribute to a healthy life; and I have observed that we tend to attack our goals more effectively when we are enthusiastic about them.

But I also have learned that positive thinking is generally not sufficient for success. We also need a plan to achieve our goals. And often we need to work hard to execute that plan. Plans and hard work are not part of Ms. Byrne's Secret. For her and her followers, it's all about visualizing that new car or an awesome life partner or a cure for your disease. Wish it really hard and you will mysteriously get it.

Byrne does not cite any studies or indeed provide any real evidence of her theories, but she does quote a lot of people with impressive titles like "Philosopher", "Metaphysicist", and "Visionary". She also provides a handful of anecdotes to support her ideas. However, most of the people in these anecdotes are either unnamed or are the same visionaries and philosophers who contributed to her book.

If you've already seen the film of the same name, you won't need to read the book - it's basically a transcript of the movie. The difference is that the book adds credibility because it is printed on paper the color of aged parchment and the movie provides credibility by allowing you to see that many of Ms. Byrne’s supporters look and act like television evangelists. Both the book and the movie have lots of calligraphy, so you know they are serious.

If you want to take the first step toward change, I recommend you include positive thinking as part of your strategy. But if you are serious about changing your life and achieving your goals, I suggest you look for a self-help book that is closer to the opposite edge of the fantasy-reality continuum.

Friday, 28 December 2012 16:53:05 (GMT Standard Time, UTC+00:00)
# Thursday, 08 November 2012

I, Steve sounds like an autobiography written by the late Apple founder Steve Jobs. The title is eerily similar to the the autobiography title of Steve's former partner, Steve Wozniak.

In fact, I, Steve is a collection of quotes by the tech visionary. gathered together into a slim paperback and organized by category. It was obviously thrown together quickly after the death of Mr. Jobs, and probably compiled almost entirely from online searching.

Still, there is a lot of wisdom in this collection. Jobs was a visionary and his company changed both the computer market and the electronic devices market. So, it's not surprising that he revealed this vision in interviews, speeches, and conversation.

The following quote from a 1999 Time magazine interview could serve as well as any mission statement.
"The roots of Apple were to build computers for people, not for corporations. The world doesn't need another Dell or Compaq."

Jobs's famous quote "Real artists ship" appears several times in the book - In part because he was fond of repeating it and in part because it is appropriate to multiple categories.

Although you'll find some inspiration among Jobs's words of wisdom, the lack of context make this book little more than a trivia book. Still, Jobs's words were entertaining and inspiring and you could do worse for bathroom reading.

Thursday, 08 November 2012 15:29:00 (GMT Standard Time, UTC+00:00)
# Thursday, 27 September 2012

Azure In Action by Brian Prince and Chris Hay has something for everyone. It provides a good overview of the use cases for Windows Azure and a high-level overview of the Azure architecture, which is useful for those new to the platform. It also provides many in-depth examples of Azure features, such as web roles, worker roles, and storage options.

The book also benefits from the light-hearted style of Prince and Ray, who are as entertaining in print as they are in person.

The only downside is that newer Azure features are not covered in this book and Microsoft is adding new features at a startling rate. As far as I know, no updated edition is in the works to cover these new features.

Still, the book remains relevant because of its focus on the uses of cloud computing and on the still-relevant core features.

If you are new to Windows Azure, this book is a good starting point.

Azure | Books
Thursday, 27 September 2012 15:38:30 (GMT Daylight Time, UTC+01:00)
# Sunday, 19 August 2012

JavaScript’s popularity proves how useful people have found the language. Novices use it to add simple validations to web forms, while advanced build amazing applications with JavaScript.

Yet, for all its utility, many look at JavaScript with disdain and fear, pointing to dangerous features and to the difficult of dealing with the browser's Document Object Model.

In JavaScript: The Good Parts, Douglas Crockford distinguishes between the good features of JavaScript that make it and elegant and powerful language; and the bad parts that make it dangerous and difficult to understand. Crockford’s message is to use the good parts and avoid the bad parts and stop fearing JavaScript.

According to Crockford, most people misunderstand JavaScript and so they misuse it; then, they complain about the language.

Crockford acknowledges that the designers of JavaScript made some mistakes (global variables, for example), but that there are enough good features of the language to make it appealing to a wide range of users writing a wide range of applications. He notes that JavaScript succeeded as a platform for creating client code for the web – something that that the more powerful Java language attempted and failed badly – and that this proves JavaScript’s power.

Applications will be better and developers happier, notes Crockford, if developers avoid the bad parts of the language. For example, always use the "===" operator, which returns what most users expect because it doesn't do any type coercion. Avoid the confusion of the "==" operator, Crockford recommends.

Crockford's style is concise and straightforward. At fewer than 200 pages, the book has no room for distractions. Regular Expressions are presented and described and examples are shown how to use them. Crockford clearly describes Closures, a feature that is likely new to many developers; and he spells out how callbacks are implemented in JavaScript.

Before reading this book, I was unaware of implied semicolons in JavaScript and whey they can be dangerous. Crockford spelled out the dangers and how to avoid them very clearly.

JavaScript can be a great language if you confine your programs to using the best parts of the language and steer clear of most of the dangerous features. This book will help distinguish the two.

Sunday, 19 August 2012 03:36:23 (GMT Daylight Time, UTC+01:00)
# Wednesday, 27 June 2012

If you are new to performance and load testing, you need two things: knowledge of testing practices and knowledge of testing tools. .NET Performance Testing and Optimization: The Complete Guide by Paul Glavich and Chris Farrell provides both of these.

.NET Performance Testing and Optimization provides a solid overview of good testing practices, as well as practical information on how to use various commercial testing tools that are currently available.

The first three chapters cover principles of testing, such as which metrics you can measure, what information each metric provides, and when to care about each metric.

Glavich and Farrell describe the different types of tests and the goals of each. Performance Testing, for example, measures the speed at which an application responds to user input and events. Load Testing measures the number of concurrent users an application can reasonably support. Although they are often confused, the goals are different and the important metrics for each are different.

The rest of the book describes in detail various types of tests you can perform. Glavich and Farrell even provide step-by-step instructions to perform these tests with popular commercial products.

For those new to performance testing, for those needing a refresher on performance testing, or for those who want to know how to use commercial products to perform performance testing, .NET Performance Testing and Optimization  is a good source of information.

Wednesday, 27 June 2012 15:47:00 (GMT Daylight Time, UTC+01:00)
# Wednesday, 01 February 2012

Dr. Greg Low has been running a technical user group for years. In Building Technical User Communities, he shares what he has learned - what works; what doesn't work; and advice that may or may not fit your group.

As a longtime user group contributor and leader, I had already considered many of his recommendations, but I found most of them to be solid advice. In fact, at my group - The Great Lakes Area .NET Users Group in Southfield, MI - we were already doing many of the things that contained in this book.

For example, we found that members appreciate a consistent meeting place and time for our group. We have also used our group as an opportunity for new speakers to build their skills in a low-risk environment.

Like Dr. Low, I have found the best way to grow a group's attendance is by word of mouth - get to other user groups and technical events in the area and promote your group; and encourage your members to invite their friends and co-workers to the next meeting.

You don't need to take every bit of advice. For example, Dr. Low recommends 2 speakers per meeting, while my group has been successful with just one.

A month after the expiration of my term as user group president may not be the perfect time to read a book on how to lead a user group. But it's a good time to evaluate such a book.

If you are part of the leadership of a technical user group or you are considering forming your own group, an evening spent with this guide will give insight into what can make it successful.


Wednesday, 01 February 2012 18:36:44 (GMT Standard Time, UTC+00:00)
# Tuesday, 30 November 2010

Restful Web Services Cookbook by Subbu Allamaraju

The format of Restful Web Services Cookbook is different than I’m used to. The book presents ideas in the form of a problem, a solution, and a discussion of the solution. It starts with simple concepts like HTTP verbs (GET, POST, PUT, etc.), and moves onto more complex topics, such as content negotiation and sending queries via HTTP.

Most eye-opening for me is the concept of providing in the data sent to the client links to perform related actions on the data, such as updating the record or rolling back changes to a previous version.

In my career, I typically focus on the tools of software development. This book ignored the tools to create and consume web services and focused on the format of the messages passed. It got me thinking at a lower level – about message headers and HTTP verbs – than I am used to thinking.

One hast to get past the fact that Allamaraju does not provide code for generating the requests and responses he describes. He does so in order to keep it technology-neutral and language-neutral. The reader has to apply the concepts to their own development skills in order to implement these recipes.

Restful Web Services Cookbook gave me new insight into the workings of HTTP. It took me out of my comfort zone and taught me a lot.

Books | Web
Tuesday, 30 November 2010 10:07:00 (GMT Standard Time, UTC+00:00)
# Sunday, 05 September 2010

It has been almost a decade since I first learned C#. It didn’t take me long to become productive in this language; but years later, I am still uncovering its secrets. There are two reasons for this:

  1. C# is a relatively complex language and new features are added with each release. There is a lot to learn
  2. In many cases, C# offers multiple ways to accomplish the same task and it’s not always obvious which way is best for my project.

In Effective C#, 2nd Edition, Bill Wagner attempts to demystify C# by explaining much of the inner workings of the language and by providing specific advice points to improve your coding.

The book assumes a basic understanding of C# syntax. It builds on this understanding in two ways:

  1. Explaining the implementation details of the language
  2. Providing advice on how to use the language and the .Net libraries in your coding.

The second edition of this book includes new features introduced in C# 3.0 and 4.0, such as lambda expressions and LINQ.

The book is split into 50 chapters and each chapter advises developers on a specific coding preference. Wagner backs up his advice with an explanation of the inner workings of the C# language. Among the questions that Wagner answers are:

  • What is the difference between readonly and const and which one should I use and why?
  • What new C# feature reduces the need for multiple overloads?
  • When and how do I need to explicitly dispose of objects?
  • What does it mean for a variable to be statically typed as a dynamic variable? Does that even make sense?

I learned something new in nearly every chapter. Some chapters shed more light on topics that I thought I knew well. Other chapters introduced me to concepts about which I knew very little. And a few chapters contained information so complex that my head began to hurt (I'm looking at you, IDynamicMetaObjectProvider).

With 50 chapters of solid advance and concise explanations, everyone beyond a beginner level in C# can benefit from this book.

Effective C-Sharp book
Sunday, 05 September 2010 15:03:41 (GMT Daylight Time, UTC+01:00)
# Friday, 09 July 2010


You might think that full-color illustrations would make very little difference in a technical book.

But  Beginning JavaScript and CSS Development with jQuery by Richard York focuses so much on user interfaces that the added color makes the samples more clear. When the author lists code to change the color of a paragraph, the illustration shows the new and old colors to drive home the concept.

York starts with the basics of jQuery – selecting elements on a page and applying styles dynamically – and moves progressively into more advanced topics, such as making Ajax calls and accessing the jQuery API. He devotes about a third of the book to jQueryUI, a library that contains controls designed to build rich, interactive web interfaces without the need for a lot of code.

York explains the challenges inherent in developing applications with Javascript (the need code to different Document Object Models for each browser) and how jQuery addresses this by providing a single programming model that abstracts away the different browser DOMS.

The book is filled with examples, showing the HTML, CSS and jQuery demonstrating each point. You can read/copy these from the book or download them from the Wrox site.

This book is aimed at someone with experience in HTML and CSS, but little to no Javascript or jQuery knowledge. For those just getting started in jQuery this is an easy to follow book where you can learn the concepts and quickly become productive.

Friday, 09 July 2010 17:28:10 (GMT Daylight Time, UTC+01:00)
# Wednesday, 07 July 2010


It’s no secret that software developers, managers and analysts do a poor job estimating projects. Few IT projects complete within the time they are estimated and far more go over the original estimate than under it.

Steve McConnell knows how difficult estimation can be His 2006 book Software Estimation is subtitled Demystifying the Black Art.

Developing reasonable estimates of software projects may not be a black art, but it does cause problems and most people fail at it for a variety of reasons.

McConnell refers to estimation as an art, not because it has no basis in science, but because formulas don't tell the whole story. Experience and difficult-to-measure inputs are required to generate a complete estimate. And even then, you may still get it wrong.

When McConell lists sources of estimation error (subjectivity, missing tasks, unwarranted optimism, excess precision), it's startling how many of those factors I have experienced or contributed in my own career.

The author provides various methods for creating an estimate and guidance on improving the accuracy of your estimates. Among his advice is:

  • Base your estimates on something you can measure - preferably historical data on similar projects in your own organization. Estimates based on measurable data are far superior to those based on subjective criteria.
  • Estimates are never precise (they're not called "exactimates"). Present estimates as ranges and don't include more significant digits than your inputs can justify.
  • If possible, get effort estimates from those who will actually perform the work. Developers vary in how quickly they can accomplish a given task - sometimes that variance is in orders of magnitude.

If part of your job includes estimating software projects, this is an essential book to guide you. Like most of McConnell’s books, I recommend it.

Wednesday, 07 July 2010 15:50:10 (GMT Daylight Time, UTC+01:00)
# Tuesday, 22 June 2010

The Elements of Style by William Strunk Jr and E.B. White changed my life.

In 1919, E.B. White was a student in William Strunk Jr's Cornell English class. The course textbook - written by Strunk a year earlier - impressed White enough that he decided to revise and expand it 40 years later.

While Strunk's version focused primarily on rules of proper English grammar, White added sections on writing style.

White argued that writing can be grammatically correct but poor quality, if it lacks good style. In his revised edition, White established guidelines by which a writer can improve his or her writing style.

The book has been revised several times over the years as the English language and the audience have changed and evolved.

The major points of the Elements of Style are

  • Know the basic rules of grammar. Be aware of the most common errors of grammar and spelling.
  • Tell your story in a clear and straightforward manner. The message is more important than the style.
  • Be Concise. Wasted words dilute your writing.
  • Excessive adjectives, adverbs and qualifiers detract from your message. Eliminate them.
  • Choose established usage, before deviating

Most of these rules can be broken, White tells us.

The Elements of Style is often criticized because many great writers ignore this book's advice. But White does not claim to preach dogma: He provides guidelines that will improve most writing.

But we should understand the rules that we are breaking and we should break them for good reason.

If you do any writing in English, you will benefit from this book. At less than a hundred pages, the time investment is small but it packs more information than much larger books.

This is a book that I read every few years because it reminds me of the power of strong, concise writing.

Tuesday, 22 June 2010 11:39:35 (GMT Daylight Time, UTC+01:00)
# Tuesday, 08 June 2010

Interest in F# has risen dramatically with the release of Visual Studio 2010 and Microsoft's decision to include this language with this product.  Many of us are scrambling to understand this new language and how it relates to our software projects.

F# is a functional language, which means that it focuses on giving developers the ability to create functions that consistently return the same value, given the same inputs. It does so by discouraging mutability in its language constructs, thus minimizing side effects that can alter state from one call to the next.

Chris Smith's book Programming F# provides an introduction to and an overview of this language. Because so many of the constructs are foreign, this book can be a bit overwhelming - particularly Chapter 2, which quickly introduces many of the language constructs of F#.

But Smith brings it together after pushing through the language details. He goes through the basics of functional programming; then compares it to imperative programming, showing how you can implement either style using F#. He follows with a discussion of object-oriented programming and its relevance to F# (it is a key to allowing F# programs to interact with programs written in other .Net languages).

The book is filled with examples to illustrate the points made. If you are new to F#, Programming F# is a good book to get you started with the language.

Books | F#
Tuesday, 08 June 2010 19:59:33 (GMT Daylight Time, UTC+01:00)
# Thursday, 20 May 2010

What I like about Paul Kimmel's LINQ Unleashed for C# is that he does not rush into explaining LINQ. Before explaining LINQ, Kimmel explains the new technologies that make LINQ possible.

He walks the reader through anonymous types, type initialization, extension methods, the yield return statement, lambda expressions, and closures - all features that were introduced in C#3.0 - before explaining how each of these features makes LINQ possible.

After building up to it, Kimmel steps through the syntax of LINQ, providing numerous code examples.

He begins with syntax to all implementations of LINQ; then dives into more detail about the major LINQ implementations: LINQ to SQL, LINQ to Objects, and LINQ to XML. In each section, he provides numerous helpful samples.

When I first opened this book, I was new to LINQ (Language Integrated Query) and had no grasp of how it works. This book got me up to speed. I recommend it for anyone learning LINQ.

Books | LINQ
Thursday, 20 May 2010 14:58:59 (GMT Daylight Time, UTC+01:00)
# Friday, 14 May 2010

Like most statistical measurements of large groups, the success of people in a given population usually forms a normal distribution or "bell curve". In other words, most people fall at or near the average level of success; and as we move further above and below the average, fewer and fewer people appear at each level until the number approaches zero far above and below the average.

But some people fall well outside the boundaries predicted by the normal distribution. These people are outliers.

In his book "Outliers", Malcolm Gladwell is primarily concerned with those outliers who excel far beyond the level expected. These are intellectual geniuses and musical prodigies and world-class athletes who achieve great success.

Becoming an outlier takes talent and hard work - a lot of hard work: 10,000 hours of dedicated practice, according to Gladwell.  For example, the Beatles owe their success in large part to the fact that they performed 8-12 hours a day for 2 years at the clubs in Hamburg, Germany, allowing them a chance to perfect their craft before they recorded their first hit records.

But Gladwell insists that enormous success takes more than talent and hard work. It takes luck. And that luck sometimes follows measurable patterns and those patterns can be predicted.

As evidence, he points to birth dates as a major factor in the success of many outliers. Bill Gates, Paul Allen and Steve Jobs were born within months of each other; Of the 75% richest people in history, 14 were born in the United States between 1831 and 1840; and the vast majority of elite Canadian hockey players were born during the first half of the year.

He then explains reasons why something as seemingly arbitrary as a birth date would affect one's chance at extreme success. In each case, he presents a plausible explanation of the cause and effect. Canadian hockey players born in January, for example, tend to be placed in the same league as the much younger players born in December of the same year. At a very young age, this can be a huge advantage, so the older, bigger, stronger January-born athletes tend to dominate the less mature December-born players. As the stronger kids stand out more, they get picked for the better leagues, where they receive superior instruction and more practice time (making it more likely they will be able to put in 10,000 hours of practice before adulthood).

Just as talent and hard work alone will not guarantee success, neither will lucky circumstances. But these things improve one's chances - sometimes drastically.  Not all Canadian hockey players born in January make it to the NHL. But almost none of those born in December do.

Gladwell's case studies are very interesting and very plausible. He supports his hypotheses primarily with anecdotal evidence. But he supplies enough statistics to support his conclusions.

These seemingly random factors are often predictable, so it is possible to modify our behavior and increase our chances at great success. Some of them (month of birth, for example) are beyond our own control; while others (year of birth, are only known to be success factors later on), so it's difficult to modify all our behavior.

Outliers challenges the notion that people achieve great success solely through talent and hard work. Outliers is an interesting study of his findings and worth reading.

Friday, 14 May 2010 11:28:21 (GMT Daylight Time, UTC+01:00)
# Friday, 30 April 2010

I began reading Agile Principles, Patterns and Practices in C# by Robert C Martin and Micah Martin after a friend recommended the chapters on pair programming.  My friend was right, of course. The Martins not only decribed pair programming but included an entertaining script of two developers pairing on a programming problem.

But, as I dove deeper into this book, I found a wealth of other information.

The book begins with a section on agile development, defining some basic terms and concepts recommended practices. It follows with a detailed section on good design practice. This second section is the most interesting, as it describes the famous SOLID principles. SOLID is an acronym for a set of good design practices:

S=Single Responsibility Principle: Each class should serve only one purpose and have only one reason to change.
O=Open-Close Principle: Classes should be open for extension but closed for modification
L=Liskov Substitution Principle: It should always be possible to substitute a derived class with its base class
I=Interface Segregation Principle: Interfaces implemented by a class are defined by the client objects that use that class; a class should implement a separate interface for each client that calls it.
D=Dependency Inversion Principle: To maintain flexibility, you should write code that depends on abstractions, such as interfaces.

Next, the authors present an overview of Unified Markup Language (UML), a graphical language used to describe software designs and requirements. Common UML diagrams and shapes are described and the author offers opinions of which ones are most useful and when to best use them.

The last half of the book is a case study of a Payroll System in which the authors use examples to illustrate the concepts introduced in the first half of the book.

Although C# is included in the title, the book does not focus on C# and almost none of the concepts are specific to any particular language. All the code examples are in C#, which makes it a bit more accessible if that is your strongest language.

The book is filled with lots of information and good advice. For example, the authors recommend an iterative approach to writing software, a test-first approach to development and encourage developers to refactoring their code frequently.

Whether you read all of Agile Principles, Patterns and Practices in C# or pick through the sections of interest, you will benefit from this book.

Friday, 30 April 2010 19:41:42 (GMT Daylight Time, UTC+01:00)
# Saturday, 13 February 2010

You could start at the beginning and read all the way through Windows Server 2008 R2 Administration Instant Reference by Matt Hester and Chris Henley. Part 1 of the book of the book ("Getting Started") walks the reader through planning, installing and upgrading the operating system, while subsequent sections dive into details about specific areas of the software.

But a more reasonable approach is to open to the section on which you are working today. Each chapter is structured so that you can dig into the detail you need. Each topic begins with an explanation of concepts and definitions of key terms. This part is critical for someone like me, who doesn't spend his days managing servers. Experienced administrators may skip this section and jump to the detailed explanations of how to use and configure each feature of Windows Server 2008 R2. Basic functionality is described first, followed by more advanced features.

A section on Active Directory, for example, begins with a description of built-in groups, followed by a description of custom users and groups and how rights are granted. After establishing these basics, the author describes how to use Active Directory to manage groups, users and rights and how to configure this in Windows Server.

Hester and Henley write in a clear, concise style that simplifies everything they describe. Step-by-step instructions are amplified by screen shots.

The smaller dimensions of the book make it fit easily into a laptop bag, despite the 500+ pages of text.

This is a solid book for a full- or part-time network administrator to keep on hand for a quick reference or for a more detailed look into important concepts of Windows Server.

Official Book site

Saturday, 13 February 2010 20:36:46 (GMT Standard Time, UTC+00:00)
# Monday, 21 December 2009

Complexity is the Enemy! 

This is the message driven home repeatedly by Roger Sessions in his book Simple Architectures for Complex Enterprises

Sessions recommends tackling a complex enterprise architecture by identifying the subcomponents of a complex system and dividing that system into autonomous subsystems. He refers to these subsystems as Autonomous Business Capabilities (ABCs) and the process of dividing them as a Simple Iterative Process (SIP).  

Before describing how to approach this process, Sessions presents a mathematical proof that subdividing a complex system into a set of subsystems reduces the complexity of the system as a whole. This seems intuitive to many of us, but the mathematics allow us to be more forceful in our commitment to this process. The mathematics is relatively simple (nothing beyond high school math) and he even recommends training team members in this mathematics before beginning any SIP.

A large part of an Enterprise Architect's job is to define the optimal way to partition the complex system. By applying mathematics to his model, he removes the emotions that so often dictate how a project is broken up.

The process of splitting a complex system into appropriate subsystem isn't overwhelming, but it is critical to managing complexity. According to Sessions, Each ABC should contain only elements that relate to one another; and the elements of one ABC should not relate directly to or communicate directly with any element in another ABC. Once partitioned, each ABC should be roughly the same size, although it is possible to split a subsystem further into sub-subsystems. It is also critical that communication between each subsystem take place only at a few clearly-defined points.

If this sounds like a recipe for Service Oriented Architecture, this is no coincidence. Sessions concludes his book with recommendations on moving from business partitions (ABCs) to software partitions, which he describes as "fortresses". These software partitions follow many of the same rules as ABCs created with the SIP, so making this transition is straightforward.

This is a good book for anyone who aspires to be an Architect (Enterprise or otherwise) and wants to apply a systematic approach to managing complexity.

Monday, 21 December 2009 19:45:02 (GMT Standard Time, UTC+00:00)
# Wednesday, 28 October 2009

Microsoft ASP.Net MVC (aka "MVC") is a new framework from Microsoft designed to encourage loose coupling between the user interface and the data layer of a web application. With MVC, an application is logically divided into the Model (the data), the View (the user interface) and the Controller (code to retrieve and manipulate data before passing it to the View). This framework makes it nearly impossible to add business logic (or any code for that matter) to the UI layer; Business logic in an MVC application belongs in either the Model or the Controller. MVC allows for greater separation of concerns, more control over the HTML output and easier unit testing of a greater percentage of your code.

Professional ASP.NET MVC 1.0 by Rob Conery, Scott Hanselman, Phil Haack and Scott Guthrie describes the framework, how to use it, and how to exploit these advantages.

A significant part (about 40% of the text) of this book can be downloaded free. Chapter 1 - the free download written by Microsoft VP and cyber-celebrity Scott Guthrie - describes an ASP.NET MVC application called 'Nerd Dinner'.  This is the chapter I spent the most time on. I used Nerd Dinner as a model to build my own MVC application, striving to understand why the code was written as it was and how the framework was used. For me, this was the most useful part of the book.

This is not to say that the rest of the book is useless - It was very informative. I especially liked the chapters that dove deeper into explaining the Routing Engine, the Controllers and the Views. These chapters weren't comprehensive enough to be a definitive reference, but they were clear and concisse and I learned the flexibility of this framework and alternative ways to use it.

Other chapters describe how to use JQuery and Ajax to make MVC applications more dynamic and visually appealing. The authors devoted two chapters to testing because this is one of the major benefits of MVC.

The final chapter describes how to integrate MVC and the traditional web forms framework into a single application. I appreciated this because so much of my work is modifying existing systems.

My recommendation is to download and read the free chapter of this book before deciding whether to invest the 50 bucks on the larger dead tree version. This will give you a better perspective on the framework and you will make the rest of the book more relevant. If your goal is simply to evaluate this framework or get exposure to it, this chapter may be sufficient.

But if your interest is piqued by Nerd Dinner, the remainder of this book is a good start in learning MVC.

Books | MVC
Wednesday, 28 October 2009 11:05:28 (GMT Standard Time, UTC+00:00)
# Tuesday, 20 October 2009

Think big; act small; fail fast; learn rapidly.

These are some of the lessons from Tom and Mary Poppendieck’s book Lean Software Development – An Agile Toolkit.

The Poppendiecks take what they learned from Lean Manufacturing (many of which were originated with the pioneering work of Toyota Motor Company) and apply these lessons to software development.

They deliver advice in the form of 22 “tools” that can make a team or project more lean. Related tools are grouped together into chapters.

The authors recommend that organizations define, find and eliminate waste wherever it occurs in a process. Examples of waste in software development include defects, waiting, extra features or processes, and any non-essential activity. To assist finding waste, they recommend Value Stream Mapping - a technique in which one lists in sequences all the steps from customer request to delivery and estimates the time to completion of each step and the wait time between each step. This technique often makes bottlenecks obvious so that they can be reduced or eliminated.

Many of the tools in this book overlap. For example, iterations and feedback are listed as separate tools, but shorter iterations allow for more frequent feedback to the development team. Short iterations also expose design problems more quickly sot that the can be corrected early in the development cycle at a lower cost.

Much of the authors’ advice seems counter-intuitive. For example, they recommend against detailed planning at the start of a project and attempting to optimize every part of a multi-part project.

A popular approach among software project managers is to create in advance a detailed plan of every step in the design, development and deployment process and to estimate each step. To do so, you need to know a specific scope of everything you will build. This makes sense as a risk-reduction strategy, until you consider that environments, requirements, priorities and people often change while software is being developed. A rigid plan created up front often requires an aggressive change control process to alter that plan in any way. And for long-term projects, the changing landscape almost always forces changes to the design. Also, when users know they will only get one chance to request features, they tend to ask for far more, so scope tends to get bloated when projects are planned in this way. A better approach is to re-evaluate priorities periodically throughout the development process and keep focused on the top priority features that have not yet been implemented.

Complex project can and often should be split into a number of smaller phases or tasks. This helps to simplify the complexity. Many managers then strive to optimize each phase of the project, assuming that this goal will lead to overall optimization of the project. The Poppendiecks advise against this goal because optimizing some phases may cause a bottleneck in your overall project, thus slowing down the project as a whole. A buildup of code waiting to be tested, for example, represents waste that should be eliminated. It is best to look at the system as a whole when setting optimization goals. Optimizing each part ignores the interaction between these parts.

The book finishes with practical advice to get started making your team and process more lean.

Lean Software Development - An Agile Toolkit is a clearly-written, thoughtful book and anyone involved in software development projects can benefit from reading it.

Agile | Books
Tuesday, 20 October 2009 11:17:26 (GMT Daylight Time, UTC+01:00)
# Wednesday, 09 September 2009

Steve Krug’s Don’t Make Me Think is a great book, not only for what it contains, but for what it does not contain.

At a couple hundred pages (most of which are filled with large graphics), Krug is forced to be concise in order to deliver his message. There is no room for irrelevant data in so little text. Happily for the reader, he succeeds brilliantly.

“Don’t Make Me Think” is not just the title of this book - It is the single most important point Krug makes about web usability design.

Throughout the book, he emphasizes that a good user interface should be self-evident. A user seeing a web page for the first time should not have to wonder what the page is for or how to use it.

He provides many examples to illustrate his points – most from actual web sites. Krug holds up Amazon.com as an example of a site that is doing many things right, making itself intuitive for the users. It’s tough to argue this point, given Amazon’s success and enormous growth over the years.

According to Krug, most web designers make the mistake of assuming that visitors to their site will read everything on each page presented to them. The reality is that most visitors quickly scan a page, searching for anything that looks relevant to them. When they find something that seems useful and clickable, they click it. When they actually find something useful, they stop looking.

Because of this behavior, web designers should focus on simplifying their page layout and draw the reader’s eye to the most important parts of the page that support the most common activities. They should provide clear, self-evident labels for the items on their pages: there should be no confusion what each item is for and what will happen if a user clicks on it or otherwise interacts with it.

But following his design advice is not sufficient. Krug also recommends recruiting and observing testers to use your web design. Watch how they interact with the pages; note the pages that they struggle to learn; document unexpected behavior.  A designer does not always think like an end user and users often react in unexpected ways. This type of testing is a good way to learn how end users perceive and interact with your site.

Check out this book if you want a quick way to improve the usability of your web sites.

Wednesday, 09 September 2009 22:20:12 (GMT Daylight Time, UTC+01:00)
# Saturday, 08 August 2009

Cliff Atkinson's Beyond Bullet Points proposes a radically new approach to creating presentations based on Microsoft Power Point.

Atkinson provides a template (available for download); an outline that splits a presentation into lengths of 5, 15 and 45 minutes; and an abundance of advice on improving your presentations.

After reading the book, I discarded the template and the outline but I embraced many of his ideas.

Here is some of the book's best advice:

Allow your presentation to tell a story.
The first presentation I did after reading this book included a story about consultants Juan and Amal, who had nearly identical skills and accomplishments but received very different performance reviews. Most of my presentations are instructions on how to use software, which doesn't lend itself well to a story format. If possible, however, I try to weave a story into the presentation.

Minimize the text in your slides.
Atkinson recommends eliminating all bullet points from every slide. The only text on each slide should be a headline. I haven't gone that far, but I have drastically reduced the amount of text on each slide. When I open an existing deck, I move much of the slide text into the Notes section. This simplifies the presentation, but keeps the text with the slides when I distribute them to users. During presentation, I make the former bullet points part of my verbal presentation, rather than something the audience reads off the screen. This keeps the audience's focus on me, rather than on the screen.

Use simple graphics
A simple graphic communicates an idea visually. I have been replacing the bullet points in my slides with a headline and a single photograph that relates to the slide topic. The slides become more interesting but less distracting.

Rehearse your talk
I already knew this but the book's reinforcement helped remind me how important it is to be familiar with one's material. Nothing achieves this goal like a couple dry runs through your presentation. Ideally this should be in front of other people (to provide feedback) and in a room similar to the one in which you will be presenting; however, filming your presentation and reviewing it yourself is also very helpful.

I have not bought entirely into the Beyond Bullet Points approach. But I have internalized many of the ideas in this book and my presentations have improved as a result.

Link: Beyond Bullet Points Online

Saturday, 08 August 2009 11:21:54 (GMT Daylight Time, UTC+01:00)
# Friday, 07 August 2009

Lynnne Truss is a stickler - a stickler for proper punctuation. 

I don't know if she wanders the streets with a marker to add missing apostrophes - such as on posters for the movie Two Weeks Notice; or with white stickers to conceal extraneous punctuation - such as in a store signs that read "Boat Motor's", but I know that she is tempted to do so. I know that it pains her to see such misuse of common punctuation in public places. She agonizes each time she sees "its" and "it's" misused.

She put together "Eats, Shoots & Leaves" - a small volume designed to clarify the proper usage of punctuation in the English language and to pursuade us that it is important. 

Like Ms. Truss, I agree on the importance of punctuation, particularly in public or professional communication; but I don't always know the correct rules, so her advice is useful.

The book devotes a full chapter to the use and abuse of the apostrophe; another to the comma; a third to the dash; and so on. For each punctuation mark in question, Ms. Truss lists the proper usages of that punctuation and some common, and annoying, violations of those rules.  For example, her book lists 17 distinct uses for the comma.

It’s a difficult task because punctuation rules are sometimes vague and open to interpretation; and because the rules are often broken by respected writers; and because the rules change in a living language like English. 

But Truss does her best to clarify the vagaries and to evangelize the static, unambiguous rules. It's important because the meaning of a sentence can change dramatically, depending on the punctuation: "Extra-marital sex" does not mean the same as "Extra marital sex";

The poor punctuation of "Eats, Shoots & leaves" (the title; not the book) misrepresents the characteristics of a panda. An extraneous comma suggests that a panda employs firearms after its meal and before its exit. Correctly punctuated ("Eats shoots and leaves"), the phrase describes a panda's favorite meal.

Most of Ms. Truss's advice does not sound like a textbook. Regarding comma usage, for example, she dictates the rule: "Don't use commas like a stupid person". What she means is that one should step back and read a sentence to verify that the punctuation conveys the correct meaning. 
For example, the sentence
"Leonora walked on her head, a little higher than usual."
is grammatically correct, but probably not what the author intended.

Despite her passion for the topic, her style is light and engaging. I laughed out loud several times while reading this short volume. She parenthetically refers to Gertrude Stein as a "strange woman" (presumably because she disagrees with nearly every opinion Ms. Stein holds on punctuation); and she once described a long, over-punctuated sentence as exhaustedly slipping into a comma.

I really enjoyed this book and will keep it on my bookshelf beside Strunk and White's excellent The Elements of Style because it is concise, accessible and extremely useful.

Friday, 07 August 2009 12:37:50 (GMT Daylight Time, UTC+01:00)
# Thursday, 08 May 2008

Edward Tufte has spent a lifetime turning data into pictures and studying the best way to do so.

In his first (self-published) book The Visual Display of Quantitative Information, he describes what makes an excellent graph or map. 

Not all data sets are good candidates for charts.  For small data sets with exact values, Tufte recommends using tables.  However to compare values or present many pieces of data simultaneously, a graph is far superior.  Graphs, Tufte asserts, are most useful when showing complex data and displaying trends or observations that are not immediately obvious when the data is displayed in tabular form.  An excellent graph is one that is clear, precise and efficient - that is it "gives to the viewer the greatest number of ideas in the shortest time with the least ink in the smallest space."

Tufte provides some advice to accomplish this graphical excellence.  He introduces the concept of "Data-Ink" ratio.  This is the amount of information conveyed by a chart, relative to the amount of ink required to print that chart.  Generally, a graph can be improved by increasing its Data-Ink Ratio.  This can be accomplished by erasing non-data ink, such as unnecessary gridlines and labels; by erasing redundant data; and by labeling data directly, rather than forcing users to look up information in a legend.

Related to the Data-Ink ratio is his push for high data density - graphics that have maximum data per page, maximum data per square inch, and maximum data per amount of ink used.  As long as a graphic does not appear confusing, cluttered or overwhelming, you should pack as much information as you can into it.

Tufte warns against "chartjunk", his term for irrelevant text, lines, pictures or other decorations that contain no actual information.  This is ink that can be erased from a chart without reducing the amount of information in the chart.  Many graphs contain pictures, 3D effects and colors that don’t relate to the data.  Rather than enhancing the user’s understanding of the data, this “junk” distracts the user’s attention from the data, making the graph harder to understand.  Erasing chartjunk increases the Data-Ink ratio, which should be the goal of every designer of data graphics.

I appreciate that the book provides numerous examples of both the right way and the wrong way to represent data visually and that most of these examples came from real-world publication.  Tufte pulls no punches in his criticism of those who do things the wrong way.  In describing one graph published in American Education magazine - a confusing 3D graph that shows only 5 pieces of data and uses 5 different colors that in no way relate to that data - he writes "This may well be the worst graphic ever to find its way into print."

This is an excellent book for anyone who needs to present data to an audience.  Business analysts, managers and software developers can all increase their effectiveness by implementing Tufte’s ideas.

This book on Amazon

Thursday, 08 May 2008 23:21:44 (GMT Daylight Time, UTC+01:00)