Treasure Hunter by W.C. Jameson – A memoir that’s a treasure itself – #nonfiction #bookreview

Treasure Hunter
By W.C. Jameson
(Seven Oaks Publishing, paperback, list price $14.95; Kindle, $2.99)

We’ve all had the great fantasy. We turn over a spade of dirt while doing some yard work and suddenly uncover Spanish doubloons or a rich cache of 19th-century silver dollars or some long-lost loot buried by a famous outlaw.

W.C. Jameson’s name is now virtually synonymous with “buried treasure.” Of his 70-plus published books, more than 20 of them are focused on treasure hunting, lost treasures and lost mines in the United States and North America.

Jameson’s huge and diverse literary output includes books of poetry, plus books on outlaws, cooking and even writing itself. Yet many of his fans think of him as a master treasure hunter first.

His newest book, Treasure Hunter, is a treasure in itself: an adventure-packed memoir that recounts and reflects upon his five-plus decades of expeditions – sometimes successful, sometimes disastrous – to find and recover long-lost gold and silver artifacts.

In treasure hunting, Jameson points out, if the rattlesnakes, rock slides and cave-ins don’t get you, state and federal laws and private landowners likely will, especially if you don’t keep stay completely quiet about what you are doing and what you have found.

Indeed, he stresses, “Anonymity is a great ally for a professional treasure hunter.”

So, before you quit your office job, cash in your 401(K), dress up like Indiana Jones, and head off for the mountains or desert, Jameson urges you to plant some harsh realities very firmly in mind:

“It is important to understand that almost everything treasure recovery professionals do is illegal,” he warns. “Thus, the bizarre and unreasonable laws related to treasure recovery have turned honest, dedicated, and hard-working fortune hunters into outlaws. Announcing a discovery often leads to negative and unwanted developments, primarily the loss of any treasure that may have been found. As mentors explained to me years ago, the fewer people involved, the better. Silence is the byword.” 

Throughout most of his fortune hunting career, Jameson has worked only with a small group of partners, none of them identified in this book, except with names such as “Poet” and “Slade” and “Stanley.”

At one point in Treasure Hunter, after a complicated expedition ends in disaster and near-death experiences, “Poet” sums up the “glamour” of their many quests:

“This little trip reminds me of most of our expeditions. Lots of action, nothing goes as planned, we get shot at, and we come back empty-handed.”

But Jameson has had some successes in his long and often arduous career: “From a few of these excursions, my partners and I acquired enough wealth to pay off houses and purchase new vehicles. With some of the money, I paid college tuition for myself as well as for my children.”

And, despite his long career and advancing age, he remains “on the hunt” for more treasures, he says.

Not surprisingly, Jameson identifies library research as one of the toughest and most essential parts of treasure hunting. And the lands around certain “lost” treasures may be accessible only after paying bribes, dealing with unsavory characters, surviving potentially fatal double-crosses, dodging deadly snakes and being willing to risk cross-border smuggling.

If that sounds like exciting “adventure” to you, pay close attention to Jameson’s additional cautions:   

“The truth is,” he writes, “adventure was never an objective, merely a byproduct. Anyone who has ever been on a quest will tell you that adventure happens when plans go awry. The great explorer Roald Amundson once said, ‘An adventure is merely  an interruption of an explorer’s serious work and indicates bad planning.’ Our plans often turned out badly, which may give you some idea of our collective ability to arrange and organize a perfect expedition, to prepare for any and all contingencies.”

For some readers, the many quests described in Jameson’s book likely will fuel or refuel a passion to go out anyway and search and dig for riches. But, for many others of us, some of the armchair adventurers of the world, his book will provide entertaining hours of safe reading, absorbing escapism and comfortable daydreaming.

And that will be treasure enough.

Si Dunn

The Cult of LEGO – #bookreview #lego #afol

The Cult of LEGO®
By John Baichtal and Joe Meno
(No Starch Press, list price $39.95, hardback)

Looking for an inspiring and informative Christmas gift for the adult or teenage LEGO® fan in your life? Stack up some consideration for this colorful new coffee table book from No Starch Press.

The Cult of LEGO® is a well-illustrated, smoothly written and often eye-opening look at the Danish toy sets that have swept the world since their inception as a stackable plastic block in 1947.

Today, LEGO® products are in the hands and toy boxes of countless millions of children. And there are many thousands of adults using the interlocking little plastic “bricks” to build everything from life-size dinosaur statues to massive models of battleships, fanciful spacecraft, Yankee Stadium and Easter Island’s mysterious stone sculptures.

Many men and women, in fact, call themselves AFOL – Adult Fans of LEGO®.—and they sometimes speak of “the Dark Age,” the time in their lives when they stopped playing with LEGO sets, because puberty, high school, college, careers, marriage and other milestones and pressures of life got in the way.

Now that they have emerged from the Dark Age, they are once again able to design and build fanciful creations using the little blocks, plus the various product additions and enhancements introduced by the LEGO Group during the 1960s, 1970s, 1990s and early 21st century.

Numerous businesses also offer specialized LEGO-compatible products, such as tiny plastic weapons, “minifigures” of famous characters (Indiana Jones, Albert Einstein, etc.) and specialized “bricks” that light up. Meanwhile, the LEGO Group has added  hundreds of LEGO enhancement parts such as gears, wheels, microcontrollers and other devices to its product offerings.

Two important aspects of the basic LEGO building “bricks” are their quality and durability. One former LEGO Group employee notes in the book that “[t]he fact that 15- to 20-year-old parts are still compatible with current sets from the store is pretty amazing—and the old pieces just need a ride in the washing machine!”

The Cult of LEGO®’s authors definitely are not strangers to the world of LEGO. Joe Meno is founder of BrickJournal, a print and online LEGO® fan magazine. He also has helped design LEGO sets, acted as an advisor on LEGO projects, and organized and run LEGO fan events. John Baichtal is a contributor to MAKE magazine and Wired’s GeekDad blog. He also has written for tabletop gaming magazines.

A note in The Cult of LEGO® points out: “This unofficial book is not endorsed or authorized by the LEGO Group.”

Nonetheless, the book’s lively and intriguing contents likely will inspire many adults and serious young builders to launch new LEGO® projects or complete old ones. There are many lively photographs and illustrations, as well as interviews, anecdotes and descriptions of resources for the serious AFOL and younger enthusiast alike.

Si Dunn

The Silver Lotus – fine historical fiction by Thomas Steinbeck – #bookreview

The Silver Lotus
By Thomas Steinbeck
(Counterpoint, hardback, list price $25.00; Kindle, $9.99)

Written in the style and language of a 19th-century novel, The Silver Lotus is a grand, sweeping, absorbing tale of Pacific seafaring, romance, family, and business and cultural interactions that ultimately help spur the growth and development of the Northern California coast.

This elegant work of historical fiction has surprisingly little dialogue. Its author, Thomas Steinbeck, son of the great novelist John Steinbeck, relies, instead, on heavy doses of exposition. Yet The Silver Lotus remains an engrossing, well-written story throughout. And it is a refreshing change from books full of fast and furious action and characters who engage in taut exchanges of clever words, while revealing little about their feelings, emotions or sense of place.

Thomas Steinbeck’s novel begins in Canton, China, the late 1890s, in the home of Master Chu-Woo Yee, a man of “high moral principles.” He also is a successful grain merchant with profitable experience in “a great many [other] varieties of exported and imported goods.”

Master Yee allows very few foreigners into his home. But one of them fascinates and intrigues him: Captain Jeremiah Macy Hammond, “one of the last of a long line of the great Nantucket seamen.”

Steamships now have begun to dominate cross-ocean trade. Yet Captain Hammond continues to transport his cargoes under sail, for a very practical reason: profit. He has amassed a small fleet of schooners that can carry large cargoes while sailing inexpensively with only a few crewmen.

When political turmoil suddenly erupts in China, Captain Hammond uses two of his ships to help to move Master Yee, his family, and the Yee fortune to safety in Singapore. Soon, Captain Hammond and Master Yee’s beloved daughter, Silver Lotus, are in love, and Master Yee is in no position to refuse their marriage.

Lady Yee, as Silver Lotus is known, is a remarkable woman with many talents and interests, as well as uncommon beauty. Before their marriage, she informs Captain Hammond that if he chooses to go back to sea, she will “sail with him, and make her life and home by his side.”

In her honor, Captain Hammond repaints his newest ship his wife’s favorite colors, emerald green with yellow trim outlined in black, and rechristens it “The Silver Lotus.” And Lady Yee proves very adept at living at sea beside her husband. She takes “total interest in everything to do with her namesake, her crew, and her cargo.”

Despite its calm narrative and languid pace, Steinbeck’s book has plenty of action and tensions. There are encounters with pirates, sea storms, illnesses, racism, drug abuse, great wealth, and death. There also are dangerous rescues and glimpses into the intricacies and risks of seafaring commerce, as well as clashes over medical and immigration practices in early 20th-century California.

At one level, The Silver Lotus is simply old-fashioned, entertaining historical fiction, enjoyable to read. On another level, however, Thomas Steinbeck’s second novel is a modern, intelligent reflection on how the melding of cultures, talents, dreams and resources has been a driving force behind the growth and prosperity of Northern California, as well as the rest of the United States.

Si Dunn

The Art of R Programming: A Tour of Statistical Software Design – #programming #bookreview

The Art of R Programming: A Tour of Statistical Software Design
By Norman Matloff
(No Starch Press, list price $39.95, paperback)

What? You haven’t heard of R, the programming language?

“R is a scripting language for statistical data manipulation and analysis,” writes Norman Matloff, an experienced and widely published writer who is a professor of computer science at the University of California, Davis. He is also a former statistics professor.

R, he notes in this excellent overview of the programming language, has a rather complicated past.

“It was inspired by, and is mostly compatible with the statistical language S developed by AT&T. The name S, for statistics, was an allusion to another programming language with a one-letter name developed at AT&T—the famous C language. S later was sold to a small firm, which added a graphical user interface (GUI) and named the result S-plus.”

According to Matloff, “R has become more popular than S or S-plus, both because it’s free and because more people are contributing to it. R is sometimes called GNU S, to reflect its open source nature. (The GNU Project is a major collection of open source software.)”

So much for its history. Who uses R? A lot of people involved in statistics and data science. “It is widely used,” Matloff reports, “in every field where there is data—business, industry, government, medicine, academia, and so on.”

Here’s the good news about his good book. If you’ve never heard of R or if it’s something you’ve only recently considered trying, Matloff shows you how to get started quickly both in interactive mode and batch mode.

And you don’t begin by tiresomely displaying “Hello, world.” You start at the heart of R. You make a simple data set, which, in R parlance, is called a vector. You concatenate three numbers, in this case 1, 2 and 4.

“More precisely,” Matloff states, “we are concatenating three one-element vectors that consist of those numbers.” He adds: “It’s hard to imagine R code, or even an interactive R session, that doesn’t involve vectors.”

From there, his book smoothly delves into a wide range of R topics, including basic types, data structures, closures, recursion, anonymous functions, object-oriented programming, and interfacing R to other programming languages.

The Art of R Programming is rich with short, instructive code examples, including examples that initially have bugs but are corrected and given explanations for why the first try went awry.

The book’s marketing materials note that archaeologists use R to trace how ancient civilizations spread, and drug companies use it to try to figure out which medications are safe and effective. And actuaries use it, of course, to “assess financial risks and keep markets moving smoothly.”

But R can be used in much more commonplace settings, as well. You don’t have to know statistics, and you don’t have to be a professional programmer. You can be a beginner wanting to become expert. Or you can be, and remain, a hobbyist programmer.

R commands typically are submitted “by typing in a terminal window rather than clicking a mouse in a GUI, and most R users do not use a GUI,” Matloff cautions.

But: “This doesn’t mean that R doesn’t do graphics. On the contrary, it includes tools for producing graphics of great utility and beauty, but they are used for system output, such as plots, not for user input.”

Never fear, however. A number of free GUIs are available for R, and Matloff gives links to several.

Two appendices in Matloff’s book cover downloading, installing and running R. The place to begin is the Comprehensive R Archive Network (CRAN), where “thousands of user-written packages” are available. And there are “precompiled binaries for Windows, Linux, and Mac OS X on CRAN,” Matloff points out.

No Starch Press, the book’s publisher, pledges that it delivers “the finest in geek entertainment.” Many readers likely will say this handsome, well-structured and well-written R overview meets that promise.

Si Dunn

CoffeeScript: Accelerated JavaScript Development – #bookreview #programming

CoffeeScript: Accelerated JavaScript Development
By Trevor Burnham
(Pragmatic Bookshelf, $29.00, paperback)

JavaScript was thrown together in 10 days and “was never meant to be the most important programming language in the world,” says Trevor Burnham, a web developer and founder of DataBraid, a startup focused on “developing data analysis and visualization tools.”

Yet, JavaScript was “understood by all major browsers,” despite their numerous differences, and it quickly became the “lingua franca of the Web,” he says in his well-written new book.

JavaScript also became a headache for many programmers struggling to learn it well enough to provide support and develop new applications.

“JavaScript is vast…[and] offers many of the best features of functional languages while retaining the feel of an imperative language,” Burnham notes. “This subtle power is one of the reasons that JavaScript tends to confound newcomers: functions can be passed around as arguments and returned from other functions; objects can be passed around as arguments and returned from other functions; objects can have new methods added at any time; in short, functions are first-class objects.”

Unfortunately, “JavaScript doesn’t have a standard interpreter,” he adds. “Instead, hundreds of browsers and server-side frameworks run JavaScript in their own way. Debugging cross-platform inconsistencies is a huge pain.”

Enter CoffeeScript, first released on Christmas Day, 2009 as “JavaScript’s less ostentatious kid brother.”

Coding in CoffeeScript requires fewer characters and fewer lines. And “the compiler tries its best to generate JavaScript Lint-compliant output, which is a great filter for common human errors and nonstandard idioms,” Burnham writes.

Another benefit: “CoffeeScript code and JavaScript code can interact freely,” he notes.

His book, aimed at CoffeeScript newcomers, assumes you have at least a little knowledge of JavaScript. But you don’t have to be a JavaScript Ninja, he assures.

He starts at the classic “Hello, world” level of CoffeeScript, including installing the CoffeeScript compiler, deciding which text editors are best, and learning how to write and debug simple CoffeeScript code.

From there, he moves quickly into showing you how to put CoffeeScript to work and develop a simple multiplayer game.

There are several different ways to run CoffeeScript, and there are different requirements, depending on whether your machine is Mac, Windows or Linux. Burnham describes these in his text and in an appendix, and he gives links to more information.

He also shows how to use a browser-based compiler for developing his book’s example application. But he does not recommend using the browser-based compiler for production work.

His book has six chapters and four appendices:

  • Chapter 1 – Getting Started
  • Chapter 2 – Functions, Scope, and Context
  • Chapter 3 – Collections and Iteration
  • Chapter 4 – Modules and Classes
  • Chapter 5 – Web Interactivity with jQuery
  • Chapter 6 – Server-Side Apps with Node.js
  • A1 – Answers to Exercises
  • A2 – Ways of Running CoffeeScript
  • A3 – Cheat Sheet for JavaScripters
  • A4 – Bibliography

CoffeeScript: Accelerated JavaScript Development offers a focused blend of examples and exercises to help speed up basic competency with CoffeeScript. In learning how to build the multiplayer game application, you use CoffeeScript to write both the client (with jQuery) and the server (with Node.js).

Since CoffeeScript and JavaScript are intertwined, you also can gain a better understanding of JavaScript by learning to code in CoffeeScript, ” Burnham promises.

In a foreword to the book, CoffeeScript’s creator, Jeremy Ashkenas, hails Burnham’s work as “a gentle introduction to CoffeeScript led by an expert guide.”

It lives up to that good billing, with many short code examples and many short tutorials and exercises that can lead quickly to building both a working app and a working understanding of CoffeeScript.

Si Dunn

Privacy and Big Data – #bookreview #nonfiction

Privacy and Big Data
By Terence Craig and Mary E. Ludloff
(O’Reilly Media, $19.99, paperback; $16.99, Kindle)

Worried about the safety of your personal data?

That genie, unfortunately is long out of the bottle—and very likely spread all over the planet now.

In Privacy and Big Data, authors Terence Craig and Mary E. Ludloff provide an eye-opening examination of “how the digital footprints we leave in our daily lives can be easily mashed up and, through expertise and technology, deliver startling accurate pictures of our behavior as well as increasingly accurate predictions of our future actions.”

Those digital pictures of who we are, who we vote for, what we buy and where we go can be worth a great deal of money and/or power to those who collect them. Indeed, they constitute “big data” and can be worth much more than gold, Craig and Ludloff contend.

“Far more is known today about us as individuals than ever before. How organizations, businesses, and government agencies use this information to track and predict our behavior is becoming one of the fundamental issues of the 21st century,” they state.

Privacy and Big Data is not a lengthy book, just 106 pages. Yet it packs plenty of punch in the form of useful, unsettling and sometimes surprising information, as well as thought-provoking examples, discussions and questions. The two writers – “executives from a growing startup in the big data and analytics industry” – draw upon extensive experience “deal[ing] with the issues of privacy every day as we support industries like financial services, retail, health care, and social media.”

Their well-written work is organized into five chapters and an appendix. Each chapter, meanwhile, has its own bibliography with links to additional materials and information.

Chapter 1, “The Perfect Storm,” looks at what has happened to privacy in the digital age and how we got to this point, starting with ARPANET (the “(Advanced Research Projects Agency Network”) in 1969, which later gave rise to the Internet. In the authors’ view: “There is a perfect storm brewing; a storm fueled by innovations that have altered how we talk and communicate with each other. Who could have predicted 20 years ago that the Internet would have an all-encompassing effect on our lives? Outside of sleeping, we are connected to the Web 24/7, using our laptops, phones, or iPads to check our email, read our favorite blogs, look for restaurants and jobs, read our friends’ Facebook walls, buy books, transfer money, get directions, tweet and foursquare our locations, and organize protests against dictatorships from anywhere in the world. Welcome to the digital age.”

Chapter 2, “The Right to Privacy in the Digital Age,” focuses on “what privacy encompasses, how our privacy norms have been shaped in the U.S. and abroad, the tension between privacy and other freedoms (or lack thereof), and how, for those of us who fully participate in all the digital age has to offer, it may very well be the end of privacy as we know it.”

Chapter 3, “The Regulators,” explores how the world has many geographical boundaries, from national borders down to city limits and even smaller demarcations, including individual agencies, departments and committees. Businesses large and small also operate within specific structural boundaries. Yet the Internet, the authors point out, recognizes no such limits. they examine “how…countries regulate the collection, use, and protection of their citizen’s personal information,” amid countless competing governmental and business agendas.

In Chapter 4, “The Players,” the authors warn: “Wherever you go, whatever you do, anywhere in this world, some ‘thing’ is tracking you. Your laptop, and other personal devices, like an iPad, Smartphone, or Blackberry, all play a role, and contribute to building a very detailed dossier of your likes, concerns, preferred airlines, favorite vacation spots, how much money you spend, political affiliations, who you’re friends with, the magazines you subscribe to, the make and model of the car you drive, the kinds of foods you buy, the list goes on.” The writers identify four broad categories of data grabbers and note that “while the[se] players are playing, consumer privacy continues to erode.” They discuss some specific things you can do to try to reduce your exposure. But, they caution, “What happens on the Internet stays on the Internet forever.”

Finally, in Chapter 5, “Making Sense of It All,” the authors pose several challenging questions and offer their views on possible answers. The questions include: “In the digital world we now inhabit, is privacy outmoded or even possible? Should we just get over it and move on? Should we embrace transparency and its many benefits and disadvantages? And if we do, or have it forced upon us, can we expect the same from our governments, our corporations, and powerful individuals? Will they be held to the same standard? If not, since information is power, what will our world look like?”

Two writers seldom agree on everything, and that is true in this book. In their Appendix titled “Afterword,” Craig and Ludloff state that they have tried to present a wide range of views on important questions, yet sometimes differ in their personal views regarding privacy and big data. They offer brief summaries of where they came from and how their viewpoints have been shaped by life events.

In a world where computers, phones, cars, cameras and many other household, work and public devices gather, store and disseminate data about us, this book can help readers think harder about what information — and freedoms — we may be giving up, willingly and unwittingly, in the name of convenience and connectivity.

Si Dunn

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Designed for Use: Create Usable Interfaces for Applications and the Web – #bookreview

Designed for Use: Create Usable Interfaces for Applications and the Web
By Lukas Mathis
(Pragmatic Bookshelf, $35.00 paperback)

There’s no code inside this well-written book for programmers and visual designers. Instead, the focus is on usability — how people use things — and how you can make big, modest or subtle improvements to their experiences with digital interfaces.

You may be designing a software product that you think will be user friendly. Yet how good, really, is your knowledge of efficient and effective design? And what do you really know about how users will respond to what you create? Are you relying on formal focus groups to tell you what your users supposedly will want?

If you are, you are not doing nearly enough research, insists the author, Lukas Mathis, a developer and user interface designer for Numcom Software. “[P]eople often aren’t able to tell us how we can solve their problems. Worse, people may not even be able to tell us what their problems are. And worst of all, people are pretty bad at predicting whether and how they would use a product if we proposed to build it for them,” he writes.

Instead of depending on focus groups, you should spend some time doing “job shadowing” and “contextual interviews” to help you shape a better interface.

“Since people don’t know what they want, a good approach is to simply observe what they do. The idea of [job] shadowing is to visit users in our target audience at the place where they will use our product. The goal is to find out how our product will help them achieve their goals.”

He adds: “With usability testing, the goal is to find issues with the user interface. When you are shadowing someone, the goal is to figure out what kind of product to create or how to change your product on a more fundamental level.”

In contextual interviews, you interview a user after doing some job shadowing. And: “What you see is more important than what people say. Still, by asking the right questions, you can often get some useful information out of people….The kinds of things you’re looking for are areas where improvements seem possible. Don’t ask for opinions, and avoid questions that force the person to play product designer.”

Mathis has structured his 322-page book into three parts – research, design and implementation – and 36 short, nicely focused chapters that deal with everything from “[c]reating documentation as soon as possible” to “learning from video games” to doing “guerilla usability testing,” overcoming common testing mistakes and dealing with bad user feedback.

Designed for Use has numerous illustrations that highlight common interface design mistakes. The book also shows major, minor and subtle ways to improve customers’ understanding, acceptance and appreciation of what happens when they use product interfaces on their computer screens or phones.

The author also emphasizes the importance of keeping in mind “that you don’t have to own 100 percent of your market. It’s true that adding more features to your product allows you to target more users, but doing so comes at a cost. Your product becomes more desirable to the people who would not be able to use it if it didn’t offer a specific feature. However, it also makes your product less desirable to the people who have no use for that specific feature.”

In his view: “It’s OK to let some people go to your competitors to get what they need; you can’t be everything to everybody.”

Si Dunn