The LEGO Build-It Book 1: Amazing Vehicles – Creating with 1 brick collection – #bookreview

The LEGO Build-It Book 1: Amazing Vehicles

Nathanaël Kuipers and Mattia Zamboni
(No Starch Press, paperback)
ISBN: 978-1-59327-503-7

Using just one collection of LEGO bricks and this colorful how-to guide, you can build 10 different model vehicles, starting with a simple go-kart and working your way up to a muscle car, a street rod, and a rescue truck, among others.

No Starch Press recently has launched its LEGO Build-It Book series with this well-crafted volume, aimed at readers age 7 and up. Volume 2, due out in September 2013, will offer another group of 10 construction projects that can be built from just one collection of LEGO bricks.

Many young readers will appreciate the new LEGO book because it has many illustrations that mostly just show,  step by numbered step, how each vehicle goes together.

Nathanaël Kuipers is a Dutch design professional who spent several years working for the LEGO Group in Denmark, where he was mainly responsible for engineering LEGO Technic models. Co-author Mattia Zamboni has a background in graphic design, photography, and LEGO, as well as electrical engineering.

A key message from this book and the evolving Build-It Book series, Kuipers says, is: “You don’t need to buy the really expensive products or lots and lots of sets to make interesting models. With a little creativity and some useful techniques, you can build endless models from a simple collection of bricks.”

Si Dunn

The Ides of April – An entertaining new Lindsey Davis detective series debut – #mystery #bookreview

The Ides of April

A Flavia Albia Mystery

Lindsey Davis

(Minotaur Books, hardback, paperback, Kindle, Audio CD)

Many fans of the Marcus Didius Falco mysteries set in first-century Rome will delight in this new spin-off series by London author Lindsey Davis. Readers eagerly seeking another unusual detective to follow may relish this series debut, as well.  

In The Ides of April, Flavia Albia, the adopted daughter of Falco and Helena Justina, makes her series debut as a private informer in Rome during the reign of Domitian, an emperor who later will be ranked somewhere in the safe middle between the best and worst rulers of the Roman Empire.

The year is A.D. 89, and a young widow named Flavia Albia has taken over Falco’s old apartment and is struggling to build up her business as an investigator. Flavia is British-born and served as nursemaid to Falco’s children before Falco and his “unofficial” wife Helena Justina adopted her.

The pay scale for a private informer is “no win, no fee.” Also: “As a female, I had no rights at all in matters of law, but why let that stop me?” Flavia has two other qualities that work in her favor as a detective in Rome: She doesn’t like to be defeated, and her adoptive parents taught her how to comfortably blend into virtually all levels of society.

Of course, it’s never easy to be a female detective in ancient Rome. As Flavia points out: “Fortune never favoured me and the problem with being a woman was that sometimes I could only obtain business that all the male informers had sniffed and refused.”

One of those “refused” cases, of course, starts out simple and soon turns into a murder investigation that includes the hunter being hunted by the killer.

The cast of characters in The Ides of April extends for two pages, and new readers of a Lindsey Davis novel likely will find themselves frequently flipping back to it for reminders of who exactly Junillus or Robigo or Felix or Serena is.

Indeed, if this is your first exposure to Lindsey Davis’s well-detailed, history-based fiction, you might consider photocopying the extensive cast list and keeping it close at hand so you won’t have to keep flipping back to the front of the book.

One other note. While the setting is ancient Rome, many of the descriptions, attitudes, and dialogue exchanges would not seem out of place in a 21st century English detective novel. This can be at least momentarily jarring for new readers of a Lindsey Davis mystery. However, we must remember that English had not yet been cobbled together in A.D. 89. And, thankfully, the author does not throw a lot of Latin at us.

Fans of Marcus Didius Falco may grumble about Falco being downsized to a much smaller character in this tale. Yet as Lindsey Davis points out on her website:

“After 20 novels, I need a break and have no current plans for a new Falco novel. I am enjoying the ‘spin-off’ series about Flavia Albia….” (The one that will follow The Ides of April will be titled Enemies at Home).

“I am also excited to be writing a ‘QuickRead’ for 2014. These are a special series of short books for adults who came to reading late or who don’t read very much. Mine is called A Cruel Fate and is set in the Civil War.”

So Marcus Didius Falco is not dead. He has just been put out to pasture while Flavia gets an entertaining and engrossing chance to make her mark in the family business.

Si Dunn

Realm of Racket: Learn to Program, One Game at a Time – #Racket #game #programming #bookreview

Realm of Racket
Learn to Program, One Game at a Time!

Matthias Felleisen, David Van Horn, Conrad Barski, M.D., Forrest Bice, Rose DeMaio, Spencer Florence, Feng-Yun Mimi Lin, Scott Lindeman, Nicole Nussbaum, Eric Peterson, and Ryan Plessner
(No Starch Press – paperback, Kindle)

Formerly known as PLT Scheme, Racket is an offshoot of the Lisp/Scheme family of programming languages. (Lisp, which was first specified in 1958, is the second-oldest high-level programming language, behind FORTRAN).

The (numerous) authors of this 294-page book call Racket “a friendly mutation of Lisp” and tout it as “perfect for all, from those who want to launch their education in computer science to those looking to expand their knowledge and experience in programming.”

Lisp has a long learning curve, so the writers have taken special pains to try to make Racket (“a weird-looking programming language,” they concede) approachable and fun by using comics and games built from short code examples.

Their well-written book is aimed at college freshmen readers. But they emphasize “that doesn’t mean you should drop this book if you are a sophomore or an industry professional.” Nor if you are still in high school or simply like to tinker with programming languages for fun and challenge.

“Regardless of your programming background,” they state, “many of the topics in this book will be new to you, and much of what you’ve learned before will appear in a new light.”

Realm of Racket is structured so that you start out programming very simple games and gradually tackle games that are more complex, while learning about such topics as functions, recursion, lambda, lists, structures, loops, testing, and more.

If you are interested in developing special-purpose computer languages that require specific knowledge of specialized fields, Realm of Racket’s  final chapter briefly delves into the field of language engineering. It notes that Racket “makes it particularly easy to create new programming languages, including special-purpose languages.”

Not surprisingly, some people who program in Racket call themselves Racketeers. The open source language and its program development environment (PDE), DrRacket (“Doctor Racket”), can be downloaded from http://racket-lang.org. “Racket can run on Windows, Mac, and *nix* systems,” the authors note.

Realm of Racket can be a fun, challenging book for computer-savvy teens nearing the end of high school or in their first years of college to study computer science or gaming. Younger readers likely won’t stick with it unless they have some helpful, patient guidance from knowledgeable older siblings or adults. Wait until they’ve gotten reasonably good at another language, such as Python, Ruby, C#, or Java, first.

Si Dunn

Hands-on Testing with PHPUnit How-to – A short, well-focused guide – #programming #bookreview

Instant Hands-on Testing with PHPUnit How-to
A practical guide to getting started with PHPUnit to improve code quality
Michael Lively
(Packt Publishing – paperback, Kindle)

PHPUnit is considered by many to be the leading tool for testing PHP code. This “Short, Fast, Focused” book (82 pages digital, 69 pages in paperback) is a recent addition to Packt Publishing’s “Instant” series. It zeroes in on how to install and use PHPUnit to create and run “easy-to-maintain tests.”

One strength of Michael Lively’s new book is his experience with PHP and PHPUnit. Another strength is the book’s step-by-step structure. It rates each key step as “Simple”, “Intermediate”, or “Advanced” and provides subheadings such as “Getting ready…”, “How to do it…”, “How it works…”, and “There’s more…” to help keep descriptions short and clear.

Code examples and screenshots also help the reader get comfortable with running tests using the PHPUnit framework.

Aside from skipping commas in some of the text, Michael Lively’s writing is clear and concise, and his descriptions and code examples have been reviewed by two experienced software developers.

The book is “written for anyone who has an interest in unit testing but doesn’t necessarily know where to start in integrating it with their project,” Lively states.

“It will provide useful tips and insights into how PHPUnit can be used with your projects and it should give you enough information to whet your appetite for the various features offered by PHPUnit.”

The code examples in Lively’s book “were written using PHP 5.3.24 and PHPUnit 3.7. All code samples were verified against a Linux box with Ubuntu 12.04 LTS.”

As with several other Packt books recently reviewed, if you use a Windows PC or a Mac instead of a Linux system, you pretty much are left on your own to figure out the installation process and certain commands.

–   Si Dunn

Book Briefs: Four Works of Fiction & Nonfiction from the American Southwest – #bookreview

A Texas Jubilee: Thirteen Stories from the Lone Star State
James Ward Lee
(TCU Press – paperback, Kindle)

James Ward Lee, former English department chairman at the University of North Texas, has earned his membership in the Texas Literary Hall of Fame the hard way. He has written numerous books, short stories and other well-received works.

A Texas Jubilee, his entertaining and absorbing new short story collection, focuses on life in fictitious Bodark Springs, a small East Texas town, in the 1930s and 1940s.

The interconnected stories often have colorful characters, richly detailed local conflicts, and troubling events such as the arrival of an aged man claiming to be Jesse James and the occasional appearance of a bike messenger who delivers World War II death-notice telegrams. One of the best stories, “A Blue and Gray Christmas,” reflects on a grandmother’s early childhood memories of the Civil War.

Unsolved Mysteries of the Old West
W.C. Jameson
(Taylor Trade – paperback, Kindle)

Many of  writer and treasure hunter W.C. Jameson’s books and articles have entertained readers who love “the Old West and a good mystery.” This second edition contains 21 “baffling” tales that still stir up people’s imaginations and sometimes continue a few disputes.

One of the best of the “unsolved mysteries” in Jameson’s book involves an alien spacecraft that may–or may not–have crashed north of Fort Worth, Texas, in 1897, in the tiny town of Aurora.

On the Edge: Water, Immigration and Politics in the Southwest
Char Miller
(Trinity University Press – paperback, Kindle)

The American Southwest is a hotbed of water-supply controversies and immigration disputes, plus sharp political clashes over how to deal with both major issues.

In On the Edge, former Trinity University history professor Char Miller’s taut, insightful essays zero in on “the American Southwest, a region I have known, loved and misunderstood.” He reflects on San Antonio and Los Angeles and what is happening to “the borderlands that stretch between them.”

He puts special emphasis on sustainability and “the environmental pressures, judicial struggles, social injustices, and economic disparities that have troubled the communities I have resided in.”

Our Lost Border: Essays on Life Amid the Narco-Violence
Edited by Sarah Cortez and Sergio Troncoso
(Arte Publico Press - paperback)

Mexico’s gruesome narcotics wars and heightened U.S. border security efforts have disrupted many economic, cultural and personal ties between the American Southwest and Mexico.

This  eye-opening book’s 12 bilingual essays highlight key losses, including the casual ease with which tourists used to cross the border. One writer notes: “The typical American tourist (including Mexican Americans) had no passport; it wasn’t needed. They often did not plan ahead. People walked or drove across the border at El Paso/Ciudad Juarez, San Diego/Tijuana and…Nogales/Nogales…and found a vibrant restaurant with delicious food and even better music. This happenstance border crossing allowed for adventures and exploring for the day….”

While some of the essays are dispiriting, hope also emerges within this important collection.

Si Dunn

Arduino Workshop – An excellent hands-on guide with 65 DIY projects – #arduino #bookreview

Arduino Workshop
A Hands-On Introduction with 65 Projects
John Boxall
(No Starch Press - paperback, Kindle)

If you’ve been wanting to tinker with a tiny Arduino computer, this excellent book can show you how to do much more than simply get started.

Indeed, John Boxall’s Arduino Workshop can keep you busy, challenged and intrigued for a long time as you work your way through basic electronics, basic Arduino programming, and a big selection of interesting and useful projects. The book’s instructions are written clearly, and they feature numerous close-up photographs, diagrams, screenshots, code listings, and other illustrations that can help you perform the how-to steps for each project.

The devices you can build with the open source Arduino microcomputer platform range from a battery tester for single-cell batteries to a GPS logger that records your travels and displays them on Google Maps. Some other examples include a digital thermometer that displays temperature changes on an LCD screen, a device that reads radio-frequency identification (RFID) tags, and a remote-controlled toy tank that you steer with an infrared TV remote. You can even create and program your own breadboard Arduino microcontroller using a handful of parts and Boxall’s instructions, diagrams, and photographs.

If that isn’t enough projects, the book also shows how to create a couple of games, plus an Arduino texter that sends your cell phone a text message when a particular event occurs. And you can rig up a simple Arduino device that will allow you to control its digital output pins by sending it a text message from your phone.

With Arduino projects, you not only do some computer programming (to create the “sketches” that control the microcomputer), you likewise learn to work with electronic components such as resistors, capacitors, LEDs and LCDs, oscillator crystals, voltage regulators, and other small parts and devices.

You also can meet and learn from other Arduino enthusiasts, Boxall notes in Arduino Workshop. “The Arduino project has grown exponentially since its introduction in 2005,” he writes. “It’s now a thriving industry, supported by a community of people united with the common bond of creating something new. You’ll find both individuals and groups, ranging from interest groups and clubs to local hackerspaces and educational institutions, all interested in toying with the Arduino.”

Si Dunn

Puppet 3 Beginner’s Guide – Automate configuration management & become a better system admin – #programming #bookreview

Puppet 3 Beginner’s Guide
John Arundel
(Packt Publishing – paperback, Kindle)

If you administer a small network built around just a few servers, you may still be doing at least some of the configuration management by hand. You literally move from machine to machine, manually entering updates, changes, or fixes. And your small network may be running several different brands–and vintages–of hardware and software, which complicates the update and repair process.

However, infrastructure consultant John Arundel warns, once you get “[b]eyond ten or so servers, there simply isn’t a choice. You can’t manage an infrastructure like this by hand. If you’re using a cloud computing architecture, where servers are created and destroyed minute-by-minute in response to changing demand, the artisan approach to server crafting just won’t work.”

In his new book, Puppet 3 Beginner’s Guide, Arundel emphasizes: “Manual configuration management is tedious and repetitive, it’s error-prone, and it doesn’t scale well. Puppet is a tool for automating this process.”

Among “UNIX-like systems,” there are at least three major configuration management (CM) packages, including Puppet. The others are Chef and CFEngine, plus a few more competitors. Arundel calls them “all great solutions to the CM problem…it’s not very important which one you choose as long as you choose one.” But he hopes, of course, you will favor Puppet and his well-written how-to guide.

Puppet 3 Beginner’s Guide is structured to help system administrators “start from scratch…and learn how to fully utilize Puppet through simple, practical examples,” he writes.

He places important emphasis on the rapidly closing “divide between ‘devs,’ who wrangle code, and ‘ops,’ who wrangle configurations. Traditionally, the skills sets of the two groups haven’t overlapped much,” he notes. “It was common until recently for system administrators not to write complex programs, and for developers to have little or no experience of building and managing servers.”

Today, system admins are “facing the challenge of scaling systems to enormous size for the web, [and] have had to get smart about programming and automation.” Meanwhile, “[d]evelopers, who now often build applications, services, and businesses by themselves, couldn’t do what they do without knowing how to set up and fix servers,” he says.

Therefore, “[t]he term ‘devops’ has begun to be used to describe the growing overlap between these skill sets…Devops write code, herd servers, build apps, scale systems, analyze outages, and fix bugs. With the advent of CM systems, devs and ops are now all just people who work with code.”

Arundel’s 184-page Puppet 3 Beginner’s Guide offers 10 chapters smoothly structured with headings, short paragraphs, code examples, and other illustrations. He has generated his code examples using the Ubuntu 12.04 LTS “Precise” distribution of Linux. But he explains how to load the software using “Red Hat Linux, CentOS, or another Linux distribution that uses the Yum package system,” as well.

The chapters are:

  • Chapter 1, Introduction to Puppet
  • Chapter 2, First Steps with Puppet
  • Chapter 3, Packages, Files, and Services
  • Chapter 4, Managing Puppet with Git
  • Chapter 5, Managing Users
  • Chapter 6, Tasks and Templates
  • Chapter 7, Definitions and Classes
  • Chapter 8, Expressions and Logic
  • Chapter 9, Reporting and Troubleshooting
  • Chapter 10, Moving on Up

That final chapter covers a range of topics, including how to make Puppet code “more elegant, more readable, and more maintainable.” The author offers “links and suggestions for further reading.” And he describes several projects to help you “improve your skills and your infrastructure at the same time.” Those projects, he says, “provide a series of stepping-stones from your first use of Puppet to a completely automated environment.”

Besides Linux, Puppet will run on other several platforms, including Windows and Macs. But there is almost no help for those in Arundel’s book. Essentially, it’s Linux or bust. For other operating systems, you will need to refer to the Puppet Labs website.

It can take a bit of work to get Puppet installed and properly configured. But once you have Puppet running, the Puppet 3 Beginner’s Guide can help you become both a proficient Puppet user and a more efficient, knowledgeable, and versatile system administrator.

Si Dunn

Mastering the Nikon D600 – Digital Darrell’s excellent new how-to guide – #photography #bookreview

Mastering the Nikon D600
Darrell Young
(Rocky Nook – Kindle, paperback)

Digital Darrell is at it again. This time, he has delivered an excellent how-to guide for using the Nikon D600 camera. This high-quality new digital SLR, he says, “can deliver some of the highest-quality images out there.”

Furthermore, he notes, the D600 offers “a rugged camera body designed to last. With this camera, we can return to the days when we seldom bought a new camera body and instead put our money into new Nikkor lenses. Wouldn’t you like to have some new lenses?”

As you would now expect with a feature-rich digital SLR, “the Nikon D600 is a rather complex camera, and it requires a careful study of resources like this book to really get a grasp on the large range of features and functions.”

The Nikon D600 is not recommended for total newcomers to digital photography. But it definitely looks like a rugged, yet lightweight winner for hobbyists and professional photographers alike. And it can be, the author says, an excellent choice for hiking, skydiving, underwater activities,  and other environments where camera weight and sturdiness are important.

Darrell Young’s hefty 547-page book devotes most of its pages to menu choices within the camera, plus step-by-step procedures for using features, changing settings, and picking the best settings for various situations.

Digital Darrell has written about 10 other books on Nikon digital cameras, including Mastering the Nikon D800 and  Mastering the Nikon D7000.

His new book is best read while working hands-on with a Nikon D600, getting it configured for the way you want it to work. (“Your Nikon D600, like a chameleon, can change to a different style of shooting with a mere turn of the Mode dial” once you’ve worked your way through various parts of  “an incredibly dense series of 50 functions,” Young writes.

Example photographs are kept to a minimum. If you need some basic, how-to-take-good-photographs help, add another Darrell Young book to your collection. But definitely get this one, too, if you want to get the most you can from your new Nikon D600.

Si Dunn

Mac Hacks – More than 50 ways to unlock the power of OS X – #apple #mac #bookreview

Mac Hacks
Tips & Tools for Unlocking the Power of OS X
Chris Seibold
(O’Reilly - paperback, Kindle)

Many people buy Apple’s Macintosh computers precisely because they do not want to have to mess with their machines. They just want to open a specific app, use it, close it and move on to the other things in their lives.

But many other users want to dive inside their Macs. They want to tinker with how it works, change settings for greater efficiency or utility, and know all that they can know about taking control and making their machine do new tricks and handle new tasks.

Mac Hacks is a fine and useful guidebook for anyone who isn’t afraid to change default settings or bring up a cursor at a command-line interface. It is also an excellent how-to guide if you want to learn how to make OS X on your Mac work better for your needs.

Author Chris Seibold wisely launches his book with a caution: “Hacking is fun and productive, but it can also introduce an element of danger….” And he starts at the very basics of hacking: carefully backing up your files before you start driving your Mac off its familiar, well-beaten paths. “With a good backup,” he writes, “you don’t start over, you simply restore. Without a good backup, well, good luck….” Indeed, his first “quick hack” shows how to change the default one-hour time-interval setting for the Mac’s Time Machine backup utility, so you can back up sooner (or later).

Seibold’s 11-chapter book contains 51 hacks that range from creating a bootable flash drive to learning how to use “the Unix side of your Mac” and putting your iTunes library on a separate disk. He also offers several more “quick hacks,” including how to copy the Mac’s Recovery partition to a Flash drive, so it can be available if your Mac’s hard drive fails.

Some of the book’s hacks have been provided by respected “guest hackers.”  But Seibold himself is no slouch at Mac hacking. He has written two other books for O’Reilly: the Big Book of Apple Hacks and the Mac OS X Lion Pocket Guide.

Si Dunn

Jump Start Sinatra – With this book and a little Ruby, you can make Sinatra sing – #programming #bookreview

Jump Start Sinatra
Get Up to Speed with Sinatra in a Weekend
Darren Jones
(SitePoint – Kindle, Paperback)

Many Ruby developers love Rails for its power and capabilities as a model-view-controller (MVC) framework. But some of them don’t like Rails’ size, complexity, and learning curve.

Meanwhile, many other Rubyists love Sinatra for its simplicity and ease of learning, plus its ability “to create a fully functional web app in just one file,” says Darren Jones in his new book, Jump Start Sinatra. “There are no complicated setup procedures or configuration to worry about. You can just open up a text editor and get started with minimal effort, leaving you to focus on the needs of your application.”

Jones does not temper his enthusiasm for Sinatra, adding that “there isn’t a single line of bloat anywhere in its source code, which weighs in at fewer than 2,000 lines!”

His 150-page book covers a lot of ground, from downloading and installing Sinatra to building websites, working with SQLite, Heroku, Rack, jQuery, and Git, and even using some CoffeeScript (to avoid “getting our hands dirty writing JavaScript…”). He also shows how to create modular Sinatra applications that use separate classes.

“Sinatra makes it easy–trivial almost–to build sites, services, and web apps using Ruby,” the author states. “A Sinatra application is basically made up of one or more Ruby files. You don’t need to be an expert Rubyist to use Sinatra, but the more Ruby you know, the better you’ll be at building Sinatra apps.”

Jones adds: “Unlike Ruby on Rails, Sinatra is definitely not a framework. It’s without conventions and imposes no file structure on you whatsoever. Sinatra apps are basically just Ruby programs; what Sinatra does is connect them to the Web. Rather than hide behind lots of magic, it exposes the way the Web works by making the key concepts of HTTP verbs and URLs an explicit part of it.”

Jump Start Sinatra is a well-written, appropriately illustrated guide to getting started with this popular free software. Ruby newcomers may wish for a few more how-to steps or code examples. But the counter argument is, if you’re brand-new to Ruby, save Sinatra for later; focus on getting learning Ruby first. 

Darren Jones does not buy into a common assessment that’s often heard when developers are asked their views of Rails vs. Sinatra. “Opinions abound that Sinatra can only be used for small applications or simple APIs, but this simply isn’t true,” he argues. “”While it is a perfect fit for these tasks, Sinatra also scales impressively, demonstrated by the fact that it’s been used to power some big production sites.”

Some of those “big production sites,” according to Wikipedia, include such notables as Apple, LinkedIn, the BBC, the British government, Heroku, and GitHub.

Si Dunn