Oh, say can you C? Learning to program with Head First C – #bookreview #in #programming

Head First C
By David Griffiths and Dawn Griffiths
paperback, list price $49.99)

 Long ago, in a universe now very far away, I was an ABC programmer: assembler, BASIC, and C. I learned C from a book popularly known as “K&R,” after its authors, Brian W. Kernighan and Dennis M. Ritchie. (Their classic work is now available in an updated second edition.)

But I had no mentors, so I struggled to figure out and apply many of the basic concepts that were not quite spelled out clearly enough or illustrated well enough for me in K&R.

I really wish I had had a book like Head First C, instead. My geeky logical side often is ruled and frequently overruled by my unstructured, illogical artistic side.

For learners like me, O’Reilly’s “Head First” series makes effective and entertaining use of graphics. It also addresses readers with a conversational style that avoids lecturing. And it focuses on trying to make sure you understand and can apply each new element.

Thus, Head First C does not try to be a complete C language reference guide. It shows you how to work with C’s major concepts, and you begin using them right away, so you can start understanding the process of becoming an effective C programmer. After that, if you are motivated to continue, you can push on into other books that do attempt to be complete C reference texts.

This “brain friendly guide” shows how to download free C compilers for Linux, Macintosh, and Windows machines. And, the authors assure: “All the code in this book is intended to run across all these operating systems, and we’ve tried hard not to write anything that will only work on one type of computer.”

Another positive for this book: You don’t have to key in or wade through dozens of lines of code to get to the few lines you are really supposed to be studying. “Most examples in this book are shown within the smallest possible context, so that the part you’re trying to learn is clear and simple.”

And, the book has been given a thorough technical review. So the code examples that are intended to work generally will work.

The book’s 12 chapters focus on the following topics:

  1. Getting Started with C
  2. Memory and Pointers
  3. Strings
  4. Creating Small Tools
  5. Using Multiple Source Files
  6. Structs, Unions, and Bitfields
  7. Data Structures and Dynamic Memory
  8. Advanced Functions
  9. Static and Dynamic Libraries
  10. Processes and System Calls
  11. Interprocess Communication
  12. Sockets and Networking
  13. Threads

About midway through the book, you are presented with your first lab exercise. You write some C code and hook up a few hardware components to create an Arduino-powered plant monitor that lights up an LED and repeatedly sends the string “Feed me!” to your screen if a plant needs to be watered.

In the book’s second lab exercise, you write C code that lets your computer and its web cam act as an intruder detector. You do this with help from OpenCV, “an open source computer vision library. It allows you to take input from your computer camera, process it, and analyze real-time image data and make decisions based on what your computer sees.”

In the third and final lab exercise, you use your new C skills to write a video game called “Blasteroids,” with help from the Allegro open source game development library.

Head First C is a first and foremost a very good book for beginners, especially those who have at least a little bit of programming experience. But it delves into some advanced-level topics, too, such as multithreading and network programming.

If learning C is your goal, Head First C can help you stay focused, stay entertained and happily soak up the things you need to know.


Si Dunn is a novelist, screenwriter, freelance book reviewer, and former software technical writer and software/hardware QA test specialist. He also is a former newspaper and magazine photojournalist. His latest book is Dark Signals, a Vietnam War memoir. He is the author of an e-book detective novel, Erwin’s Law, now also available in paperback, plus a novella, Jump, and several other books and short stories.

Machine Learning for Hackers – Analyzing & displaying data using R – #bookreview #in #programming

Machine Learning for Hackers
By Drew Conway and John Myles White
paperback, list price $39.99; Kindle edition, list price $31.99)

The word “hacker has a very bad reputation in many parts of the computer world.

This book’s two authors, however, offer a different and much more positive view. “Far from the stylized depictions of nefarious teenagers or Gibsonian cyber-punks portrayed in pop culture, “they write, “we believe a hacker is someone who likes to solve problems and experiment with new technologies.”

In their view: “If you’ve ever sat down with the latest O’Reilly book on a new computer language and knuckled out coded until you were well past ‘Hello, World,’ then you’re a hacker. “ You’re also a hacker, in their view, “if you’ve dismantled a new gadget until you understood the entire machinery’s architecture….”

As for machine learning, they define it “[a]t the highest level of abstraction…as a set of tools and methods that attempt to infer patterns and extract insight from a record of the observable world.” In more concrete terms, machine learning “blends concepts and techniques from many different traditional fields, such as mathematics, statistics, and computer science.” At the computer programming level, machine learning is defined as “a toolkit of algorithms that enables computers to train themselves to automate useful tasks.”

Conway’s and White’s new book, Machine Learning for Hackers, is rich with challenges for experienced programmers who love to crunch data. Its code examples use the R programming language, a “software environment for statistical computing and graphics.” It can be downloaded free for Windows, MacOS, or a variety of UNIX platforms from The R Project for Statistical Computing.

What you don’t get in this book is an R language tutorial. Instead of “Hello, World!” in the introductory chapter, you jump straight into working with a very interesting data set and generating histograms dealing with distributions of UFO sightings.

It is assumed that you have done some programming, and the authors note that you can find basic R tutorials online or in other books.

With a case-studies approach, each chapter of the 303-page book focuses on a particular problem in machine learning, and the authors show how to analyze sample databases and create simple machine learning algorithms.

The chapters are:

  1. Using R
  2. Data Exploration
  3. Classification: Spam Filtering
  4. Ranking: Priority Inbox
  5. Regression: Predicting Page Views
  6. Regularization: Text Regression
  7. Optimization: Breaking Codes
  8. PCA [principal components analysis]: Building a Market Index
  9. MDS [multidimensional scaling]: Visually Exploring US Senator Similarity
  10. kNN [The k-Nearest Neighbors algorithm]: Recommended Systems
  11. Analyzing Social Graphs
  12. Model Comparison

Some of the other projects the authors present include: using linear progression to predict the number of page views for 1,000 top websites; doing statistical comparisons and contrasts of U.S. Senators based on their voting records; and building “a ‘who to follow’ recommendation engine” for Twitter that doesn’t violate Twitter’s terms of service or its API’s “strict rate limit.”

Conway and White offer some fairly heady and challenging learning experiences for those who would like to work with pattern recognition algorithms and big piles of data.

“The notion of observing data, learning from it, and then automating some process of recognition is at the heart of machine learning,” the authors note, “forms the primary arc of this book.”


Si Dunn is a novelist, screenwriter, freelance book reviewer, and former software technical writer and software/hardware QA test specialist. He also is a former newspaper and magazine photojournalist. His latest book is Dark Signals, a Vietnam War memoir. He is the author of an e-book detective novel, Erwin’s Law, now also available in paperback, plus a novella, Jump, and several other books and short stories.


The Art of SEO, 2nd Ed. – Managing Search Engine Optimization – #bookreview #in

The Art of SEO, 2nd Edition: Mastering Search Engine Optimization
By Eric Enge, Stephan Spencer, Jessie Stricchiola, and Rand Fishkin
paperback, list price $49.99; Kindle edition, list price $39.99)

If you have a business website and also use social media, you likely have been bombarded with email messages , tweets or “comments” from spammers claiming to be “SEO experts.”

The four authors of this well-regarded and useful book really are experts in the field of search engine optimization (SEO). And their hefty book frequently is considered a must-have text for learning how to make online search work in ways that will help bring more customers or clients to your website.

The new, 688-page second edition of The Art of SEO “has been completely revamped and updated from the first edition, taking into account the changes in the search engine industry and the rising influence of social media,” the authors state.

This is not a book that you can zip through 1-2-3 and check “SEO” off your to-do list. Search engine optimization is a much bigger and more complicated task than you may realize. Fortunately, this well-written, well-organized and reasonably well-illustrated book “is designed to be a complete and thorough education on search engine optimization for SEO practitioners at all levels.”

The intended audience “includes web developers, development managers, marketing people, and key business personnel.” But even if you run a one-person shop with a website that is intended to draw customers or clients, you can learn useful techniques and new strategies from The Art of SEO, 2nd Edition.  Just be prepared to study a bit. As the authors note, “[Y]ou can think of [this book] as SEO 101, SEO 102 and SEO 103.”

The book has 14 chapters:

  1. Search: Reflecting Consciousness and Connecting Commerce
  2. Search Engine Basics
  3. Determining Your SEO Objectives and Defining Your Site’s Audience
  4. First Stages of SEO
  5. Keyword Research
  6. Developing an SEO-Friendly Website
  7. Creating Link-Worthy Content and Link Marketing
  8. How Social Media and User Data Play a Role in Search Results and Rankings
  9. Optimizing for Vertical Search
  10. Tracking Results and Measuring Success
  11. Domain Changes, Post-SEO Redesigns, and Troubleshooting
  12. SEO Research and Study
  13. Build an In-House SEO Team, Outsource It, or Both?
  14. An Evolving Art Form: The Future of SEO

“Search has become integrated into the fabric of our society,” the four writers note. Worldwide, more than 158 billion searches are performed each month, and more than 5 billion searches are performed each day, they estimate.

If you want to be found more often in those searches, you definitely need to start paying closer attention to search engine optimization. And The Art of SEO, 2nd Edition can be your steady how-to guide and reference point.


Si Dunn is a novelist, screenwriter, freelance book reviewer, and former software technical writer and software/hardware QA test specialist. He also is a former newspaper and magazine photojournalist. His latest book is Dark Signals, a Vietnam War memoir. He is the author of an e-book detective novel, Erwin’s Law, now also available in paperback, plus a novella, Jump, and several other books and short stories.

NOOK Tablet: The Missing Manual (for NOOK Color, too) – #bookreview #in

Nook Tablet: The Missing Manual
By Preston Gralla
paperback, list price $19.99; Kindle edition, list price $15.99)

Barnes & Noble’s NOOK Tablet and NOOK Color are stylish and powerful portable devices that blend the functions of e-reader and computer. They have many useful features, but they aren’t shipped with a detailed user manual. (B & N wants you to go to a support website.)

Preston Gralla, meanwhile, is a fine writer who has authored more than 40 books, including several in O’Reilly’s popular The Missing Manual™ series.

His latest, Nook Tablet: The Missing Manual, is both well written and heavily illustrated and does a fine job of showing and telling how to get the most from a NOOK Tablet and its cheaper, less powerful brother, the NOOK Color.

It would be nice for nervous new users, however, if the following assurance had been positioned much sooner in the book rather than on page 320: “Out of the box, the NOOK’s privacy and security settings are configured to make sure that you’re safe and secure. So most likely, you won’t need to change any settings.” (But Gralla then shows how to increase the default security, if you desire, by deleting cookies, deleting web browsing history, and blocking pop-ups.)

Gralla’s 471-page book has 17 chapters and three appendices and is organized into eight parts:

  • Part 1, The Basics – Covers setting up, charging and registering a NOOK, finding its plugs, microphone and controls, using and troubleshooting wi-fi, using a NOOK at a Barnes & Noble store, using gestures to control the device, changing your wallpaper, and other setup basics.
  • Part 2, Reading Books, Newspapers, and Magazines – Focuses on the NOOK’s reading tools, including how to use bookmarks and notes, how to change fonts and text sizes, and how to search inside a book, newspaper or magazine. Has a chapter on kids’ books and shows how a NOOK can read a children’s book aloud or record your own voice reading a book to your child or children.
  • Part 3, Buying, Borrowing, and Managing Your Library – Shows how to research and buy or borrow online reading materials and track them in your personal library.
  • Part 4, Apps, Movies, TV Shows, Music, Photographs, and Files – Starts with streaming media first, including Pandora, Netflix, and Hulu Plus. Then shows how to download and use apps. According to Gralla: “Anything you can do on a traditional tablet, you can do on your NOOK Tablet and NOOK Color. (And yes, that includes Angry Birds.)” This part also delves into how to get music, photographs, videos and documents into your NOOK and how to move files between your NOOK Tablet and your computer.
  • Part 5, The Web and Email – Shows how to browse the Web with a NOOK and how to send and receive email using virtually any of your email accounts.  Also shows how to manage your email with a NOOK and how the NOOK handles attachments such as documents, PDFs and photographs.
  • Part 6, Getting Social – Covers using the NOOK Friends app and using the NOOK on Facebook and Twitter. Also shows how to import and manage your Google, Gmail, and Facebook contacts.
  • Part 7, Advanced Topics  – Focuses on settings you can change and also how to “root” your NOOK. You can adjust sounds, customize the way the keyboard works, alter the settings of the Home screen and make other changes. If you choose to “root” your NOOK Tablet, you will “replace its operating system with a version of Android that lets you install any app you want (via the Android Market), something you can’t normally do with the NOOK.”  But Gralla notes: “Barnes & Noble frowns on this practice, which is why doing it voids the warranty.” B & N also has built “anti-rooting” technology into the NOOK Color, he adds. He carefully does not give you the exact steps for “rooting,” but mentions that such information can be found on the Web.
  • Part 8, Appendixes  – Appendix A focuses on “Maintenance and Troubleshooting.” Appendix B deals with “File Formats,” listing the file types a NOOK can handle. And Appendix C zeroes in on fun things to do with a NOOK while visiting a Barnes & Noble store, “such as read books free for an hour.”

If you are struggling to decide between a NOOK Tablet and a Kindle Fire (or some other device), books in O’Reilly’s The Missing Manual™ series can be a relatively affordable way to get the detailed information you need in a pleasant and helpful format.

If you’ve already ordered or received a NOOK, you likely need this book.

Si Dunn is a novelist, screenwriter, freelance book reviewer, and former software technical writer and software/hardware QA test specialist. He also is a former newspaper and magazine photojournalist. His latest book is Dark Signals, a Vietnam War memoir. He is the author of an e-book detective novel, Erwin’s Law, now also available in paperback, plus a novella, Jump, and several other books and short stories.

Control this! Four new how-to books that use Arduino – #electronics #programming #bookreview #in

The Arduino microcontroller and programming environment let you create, program, and control a variety of devices that interact with the physical world.

Some of the things you can do with Arduino are very simple, such as adjusting the color of an RGB (red, green, blue) LED under program control. Other projects are more complex, such as creating a system that will notify you by email when a package has been left at your front door or controlling a small robotic arm.

According to the Arduino website: “Arduino is an open-source electronics prototyping platform based on flexible, easy-to-use hardware and software. It’s intended for artists, designers, hobbyists, and anyone interested in creating interactive objects or environments.”

Four new Arduino-related books recently have been released by O’Reilly and Pragmatic Bookshelf. They are: Arduino Cookbook, 2nd Edition; Programming Your Home; Programming Interactivity, 2nd Edition; and Making Things See.

Arduino Cookbook, 2nd Edition
By Michael Margolis
(O’Reilly, paperback, list price $44.99; Kindle edition, list price $35.99)

If you’ve been curious about Arduino, this book is a fine place to start and learn a lot about what you can do with the popular little microprocessor hardware and its software. And don’t be intimidated by the book’s hefty size: 699 pages. It is packed with how-to projects, and you won’t need experience with electronics or programming to get started.

Michael Margolis has updated his Cookbook to cover Arduino 1.0. A variety of “official boards” can be found via the Web, according to Margolis, but the “basic board that most people start with [is] the Arduino Uno.” Radio Shack and other outlets sell it. The Uno has a USB connector “that is used to provide power and connectivity for uploading your software onto the board.”

Speaking of software, you will want to install Arduino’s Integrated Development Environment (IDE) on your computer. The software, available for Windows, Mac, and Linux, can be downloaded here. Margolis explains how to set up each version and also how to set up the Arduino board (and some new boards such as Leonardo).

In the Arduino world, a piece of source code is known as a “sketch.” Virtually every how-to-program book for computers starts out with a simple “Hello World” example. And the Ardunio Cookbook is no exception. It shows how to load a very simple program into the board and make an LED blink on and off. From there, the projects become increasingly more robust, until you are generating audio tones, controlling motors and servos, reading temperatures with digital thermometers, and even using Arduino to send messages to Twitter.

This well-written and well-illustrated book nicely lives up to its tagline: “Recipes to Begin, Expand, and Enhance Your Projects.”

The three other Arduino-related books focus on more specific applications of the microprocessor and its software.

Programming Your Home: Automate with Arduino, Android, and Your Computer
By Mike Riley, edited by Jacquelyn Carter
(Pragmatic Bookshelf, paperback, list price $33.00)

For those who have some basic experience with Arduino, Programming Your Home offers several fun and useful home automation projects, such as an electronic guard dog, a Web-enabled light switch, a door lock you can open or latch from an Android phone, and a package-delivery alert tool that can send you an email.

Programming Your Home is well written and shows, step-by-step, how to wire up the external components to the Arduino board, program the applications, test them and use them. A second goal is to give you the skills and confidence necessary to create “custom home automation projects of  your own design.”

The author states:Programming Your Home is best suited to DIYers, programmers, and tinkerers who enjoy spending their leisure time building high-tech solutions to further automate their lives and impress their friends and family with their creations.”

He adds: “The projects also make great parent-child learning activities, as the finished products instill a great sense of accomplishment.”

One family-oriented example is an Arduino-controlled bird feeder that time-stamps bird visits and their durations and stores the data. It also sends out Twitter tweets that alert nearby bird watchers and signal the need for more bird food. 

The most complex project in his book is also one of the coolest: a smartphone app that lets you call home and unlock or lock a door remotely. It uses a first-generation Android phone, a Sparkfun IOIO board and a few other components. This project does not use the Arduino board, but the programming and hardware experience gained from working with the Arduino comes in handy.

Programming Interactivity, 2nd Edition
By Joshua Noble
(O’Reilly, paperback, list price $49.99; Kindle edition, list price $39.99 )

“This book,” says Joshua Noble, “is called Programming Activity because it’s focused primarily on programming for interaction design, that is, programming to create an application with which users interact directly.”

His 704-page how-to guide is aimed at readers who “don’t have a deep, or even any, programming or technical background [but] you’re a designer, artist, or other creative thinker interested in learning about code to create interactive applications in some way or shape.”

The tagline for this updated edition is: “A Designer’s Guide to Processing, Arduino, and openFrameworks.” Those are the three key areas covered in the book.

Processing,” Noble points out, “was the one of the first open source projects that was specifically designed for simplifying the practice of creating interactive graphical applications so that nonprogrammers could easily create artworks. Artists and designers developed Processing as an alternative to similar proprietary tools.”

As for Arduino, Noble focuses first on programming using the Arduino IDE. Then he introduces wiring parts and devices to the board and making them work. Soon, he jumps into object-oriented programming using C++, and then he moves to openFrameworks (oF), “which is a collection of code created to help you do something in particular.”

He adds: “Specifically, oF is a framework for artists and designers working with interactive design and media art.”

From there, his book moves into physical input, programming graphics, bitmaps and pixels, sound and audio, Arduino and creating physical feedback (such as turning on motors, servos or household appliances), protocols and communication, graphics and OpenGL, motion and gestures, movement and location, spaces and environments, and further resources.

Noble covers a lot of ground, using a mixture of text, illustration and code examples. And he offers plenty of links and additional topics. Unlike many how-to guides, he includes “interviews with programmers, artists, designers, and authors who work with the tools covered in this book.”

Making Things See: 3D Vision with Kinect, Processing, Arduino, and MakerBot
By Greg Borenstein
(O’Reilly, paperback, list price $39.99; Kindle edition, list price $31.99)

Arduino becomes a key factor beginning on page 353 of this fascinating and challenging 416-page book aimed at gamers, artists, technology hobbyists and others.

The microprocessor becomes the brain of a small, easy-to-build robotic arm that can, within  limits, “reproduce the motions of a real arm.”

Much of this book focuses on the Microsoft Kinect, a popular peripheral for Microsoft’s XBox 360 video game system, which the author of Making Things See terms a “depth camera.” A Kinect contains an infrared projector and infrared camera, an RGB camera, and some microphones. “The Kinect…records the distance of the objects that are placed in front of it…[and]…uses infrared light to create an image (a depth image) that captures not what the objects look like, but where they are in space….[A] depth image is much easier for a computer to ‘understand’ than a conventional color image,” Borenstein writes.

There is focus, as well, on Processing and on 3-D printing using a MakerBot ReplicatorG or the Shapeways online service.

The book offers several projects, and, in the final one, Kinect and Arduino are linked together and the Arduino is programmed to control a basic robotic arm that responds to forward or inverse kinematics. Using two servos, the arm can move up and down at “elbow” and “shoulder” and follow the movements of a particular point.

“Our bodies respond to physical objects differently than graphics on a screen,” Borenstein states, “and there’s something powerful about closing that loop by making interactive objects that can see us move around the room and respond by moving in kind.”

He adds: “Rather than just waving at computers, now we’ve taught them to wave back.”


Si Dunn is a novelist, screenwriter, freelance book reviewer, and former software technical writer and software/hardware QA test specialist. He also is a former newspaper and magazine photojournalist. His latest book is Dark Signals, a Vietnam War memoir. He is the author of an e-book detective novel, Erwin’s Law, now also available in paperback, plus a novella, Jump, and several other books and short stories.

The Developer’s Code – Good advice to live & work by – #programming #bookreview #in

The Developer’s Code: What Real Programmers Do
By Ka Wai Cheung, edited by Brian P. Hogan
(Pragmatic Bookshelf, paperback, list price $29.00)

When Ka Wai Chung is asked to describe what he does for a living, he sometimes responds: “I am a nonaccredited, overly logical psychologist, therapist, mechanic, diplomat, businessman, and teacher working in an industry that is still defining itself each and every day.”

In other words, he works in software development as a programmer. (He is a founding partner at the Chicago-based web development firm We Are Mammoth, Inc.)

His new book is not about writing better code. And yet it is. It’s also about adopting a better approach to life and work so you can write better code and flourish in your career.

For jaded professionals, The Developer’s Code offers some astute advice for reinvigorating a weary career. If you are a newcomer still trying to get started in software development, the book is a handy guide to putting more order, efficiency and productivity into the way you program.

His 142-page book offers more than 50 short essays under major chapter heading such as “Motivation”, “Productivity”, “Complexity”, and “Clients.”

In essay #12, in the “Motivation” chapter, for example, Cheung counsels: “Test your software first thing in the morning. That’s when you’re the freshest and the most motivated to continue building something good.”

He adds: “During the day, we spend so much effort building software that we lose steam testing each piece we write. It gets hard to see the big picture as the day wears on. By late afternoon, we’re too close to the software. Our perception of what makes sense or feels right now competes with fatigue. Also, fatigue makes us miss the small details.”

Cheung’s advice rings true. I spent about 20 years immersed in software development, and I found that I typically did my best testing early in the morning, before co-workers and managers showed up.

Once the daily circus of meetings, banter and office politics got underway, it became increasingly difficult to code and test effectively as the day wore on and time to go home finally drew near — or passed.

Today, of course, it is possible to write and test code 24 hours a day without leaving your house or apartment. But many of Cheung’s gentle counselings apply to that situation, as well. We still need a good balance between work and life away from the job. If we tilt too much toward working long, disorganized hours, our accuracy and efficiency go down, deadlines slip, and project costs climb.

This is not a “how to code” book, of course. But it does not ignore the art of writing good code from scratch. At the same time, it also celebrates the vast array of tools others have written and made freely available.

“To that end,” Cheung writes, “building applications today feels a bit like going to a Walmart; maybe the open source movement is more like a Goodwill store. We can throw all of these great toolsets into our cart, hit the checkout line, and go. Once we get home, we can unwrap all these great bits of code, stitch them together with a helping of our own, and give life to an application. We can get to running software really, really fast today.”

His chapter titled “Clients” is especially important. He emphasizes: “Like any relationship, the client-programmer relationship is a continual work in progress. It gets better when each side of the table understands what matters to the other. Working with clients well starts with understanding the view from their end so that we can start to teach them how things work from ours.” (He includes advice for dealing with stubborn, unhappy clients, too.)

If  you’re serious about having or re-energizing a long-term career in software development, The Developer’s Code definitely should be high on your to-read list.


Si Dunn is a novelist, screenwriter, freelance book reviewer, and former software technical writer and software/hardware QA test specialist. He also is a former newspaper and magazine photojournalist. His latest book is Dark Signals, a Vietnam War memoir. He is the author of an e-book detective novel, Erwin’s Law, now available in paperback, plus a novella, Jump, and several other books and short stories.

Kindle Fire: The Missing Manual – Frustrated with your new Fire? Get this book – #bookreview

Kindle Fire: The Missing Manual
By Peter Meyers
paperback, list price $19.99; Kindle edition, list price $15.99)

As a longtime user of a “regular” Kindle, I thought I would be right at home, right out of the box, with a Kindle Fire.

Wrong. I was completely lost and befuddled for several days, until I began to figure a few things out by trial and error. Initially, I was so frustrated that I stuffed the new device in a drawer and returned to using my old Kindle, the one with virtually no “fire” but definitely a nice, big “page forward” button and an easy-to-use “page back” button. I was on the verge of leaving the Kindle Fire to my heirs.

The Fire, it turns out, operates almost nothing like a classic Kindle. Yes, you can still download and read books. But the Fire offers much, much more.

“Though it’s got only a few physical buttons, underneath its sleek, simple exterior lies a machine that can do as much as a ‘real’ computer,” Peter Meyers notes in this well-written, nicely illustrated how-to guide.

I am very glad to have this book, because it explains numerous features and capabilities that I hadn’t yet tried or even discovered. And I truly wish I had had it on hand when I first opened the new box from Amazon.

With help from Meyers’ manual, I’ve made peace with the Kindle Fire, and now I move easily from my older Kindle to the newer one, particularly when I want to do more than just read books. Author Meyer is right. The Fire is a “real” computer. And it’s much lighter and easier to carry around than a laptop computer in a shoulder bag or backpack. A Kindle Fire can do pretty much everything a laptop can do, including word processing, spreadsheets and Web surfing, if you are willing to accept a few compromises (such as squinting at a tiny screen and even tinier onscreen keyboard).

One way I’ve come to grips with the Kindle Fire’s virtual keyboard and small screen is to use a stylus instead of my clumsy fingertips. (By the way, even though Amazon sells the devices as accessories for the Fire, the word “stylus” is not mentioned in this book’s index, and, thus far, I haven’t found a reference to “stylus” in the text, either. Maybe it’s in there somewhere?)

Meyer’s 263-page book covers the big features and tips but also many finer points, such as how to make a pound sign — £ — using the Fire’s keyboard or how to set a schedule for when the Fire will automatically check your email.

Kindle Fire: The Missing Manual is divided into five parts and 12 chapters:

  • Part I, Getting Started and Reading – Covers setting up, reading books, reading newspapers and magazines, and creating and editing documents and spreadsheets.
  • Part II, Watching and Listening – Covers getting and watching TV programs and movies, loading photos and home videos, and getting and listening to music.
  • Part III, Communications and Browsing – Using the Fire’s address book, email and web browsing features.
  • Part IV, Kindle in Appland – Many thousands of apps are available now or coming soon to the Kindle Fire. The chapters are: “Playing Games”; “Creative Corner” (painting, drawing, photos, music, cooking); and “Managing Time, Tasks, and Travel.”
  • Part V, Appendix A: Settings and Appendix B: Troubleshooting and Maintenance.

Thanks largely to this book – which I think should have been included in the Kindle box from Amazon – I’m now a much happier and more knowledgeable Kindle Fire user.


Si Dunn is a novelist, screenwriter, freelance book reviewer, and former software technical writer and software/hardware QA test specialist. He also is a former newspaper and magazine photojournalist. His latest book is Dark Signals, a Vietnam War memoir. He is the author of an e-book detective novel, Erwin’s Law, now available in paperback, plus a novella, Jump, and several other books and short stories. 

MySQL Troubleshooting – Tools, steps & advice from an expert – #bookreview

MySQL Troubleshooting
By Sveta Smirnova
paperback, list price $29.99; Kindle edition, list price $14.99)

Sveta Smirnova knows how to find and fix MySQL problems. She is a principal technical support engineer in Oracle’s Bug Analysis Support Group and works daily with MySQL support issues and bug fixes.

Her new book is structured to help both MySQL beginners and those with more advanced skills, and it has been reviewed, prior to publication, by several other MySQL experts.

This well-written how-to guide likely will become a must-have reference book for many MySQL database administrators and support staff, as well as those currently learning MySQL. It contains numerous code examples, log excerpts and other illustrations, plus tips gleaned from long experience at solving a wide array of MySQL issues.

MySQL Troubleshooting has seven chapters:

  • Chapter 1, Basics – Basic troubleshooting techniques
  • Chapter 2, You Are Not Alone: Concurrency Issues – Problems that can occur “when applications run in multiple threads or interfere with transactions in other applications.”
  • Chapter 3, Effects of Server Options – A two-part chapter: (1) How to find and fix problems caused by configuration options; and (2) recommendations on how to solve and test configuration issues.  
  • Chapter 4, MySQL’s Environment – Deals with hardware and server environments. Lists “some points a MySQL database administrator (DBA) must look into.”
  • Chapter 5, Troubleshooting Replication – When slaves lag far behind the master, and related issues.
  • Chapter 6, Troubleshooting Techniques and Tools – Describes “extra techniques and tools” not discussed in earlier chapters.
  • Chapter 7, Best Practices – Focuses on “good habits and behaviors for safe and effective troubleshooting.”

An appendix titled “Information Resources” offers a number of websites and books that the author deems “good sources of information that can help during troubleshooting.”

She notes that MySQL now has “many forks” and acknowledges that her book cannot cover everything, nor “describe servers I don’t work with daily.” For example, she skips over Percona server and MariaDB but says “most of the methods described here” can be used except when “dealing with a particular feature added in the fork,” which will require product-specific information.

She also does not cover MySQL Cluster problems. Issues “specific to MySQL Cluster need separate MySQL Cluster knowledge that I don’t describe here,” she writes.

“But I do devote a lot of space to MyISAM- and InnoDB-specific problems…because they are by far the most popular storage engines, and their installation base is huge.”

A few of her code examples use PHP. But the C API is used “to illustrate the functions discussed in this book. The choice wasn’t easy,” she notes, “because there are a lot of programming APIs for MySQL in various languages.” And covering them all is impossible, she adds.

For many who work with MySQL, MySQL Troubleshooting can help solve or prevent a wide range of  problems, from easily overlooked syntax glitches to complex issues involving configuration, replication or multiple threads. And even if she doesn’t specifically cover your “fork” of MySQL, many of her tips, techniques, and examples can be adapted and put to good use in your own support and troubleshooting efforts.


Si Dunn is a novelist, screenwriter, freelance book reviewer, and former software technical writer and software/hardware QA test specialist. He also is a former newspaper and magazine photojournalist. His latest book is Dark Signals, a Vietnam War memoir available now in paperback. He is the author of a detective novel, Erwin’s Law, a novella, Jump, and several other books and short stories.

Webbots, Spiders, and Screen Scrapers, 2nd Ed. – Bots can be tools for good, efficiency, profit – #programming #bookreview

Webbots, Spiders, and Screen Scrapers: A Guide to Developing Internet Agents with PHP/CURL, 2nd Edition
By Michael Schrenk
(No Starch Press,
paperback, list price $39.95; Kindle edition, list price $31.95)

Bots have a bad reputation on the Web, but when used properly and for honest purposes, they can be tools for good, for better business and research efficiency, and for profit.

That’s the major premise behind Michael Schrenk’s popular book, now updated from its 2007 first edition.

He is a specialist in “automated agents (webbots, spiders, and screen scrapers)” that “solve problems” which web browsers can’t solve for themselves.

“The basic problem with browsers,” Schrenk writes, “is that they’re manual tools. Your browser only downloads and renders websites: You still need to decide if the web page is relevant, if you’ve already seen the information it contains or if you need to follow a link to another web page. What’s worse, your browser can’t think for itself. It can’t notify you when something important happens online, and it certainly won’t anticipate your actions, automatically complete forms, make purchases, or download files for you. To do these things, you’ll need the automation and intelligence only available with a webbot, or a web robot. Once you start thinking about the inherent limitations of browsers, you start to see the endless opportunities that wait around the corner for webbot developers.”

Spiders, by the way, “are specialized webbots that – unlike traditional webbots with well-defined targets – download multiple web pages across multiple websites,” he notes. Meanwhile, screen scraping is not clearly defined in this book, despite being in the subtitle. It generally involves automatically collecting, but not parsing, visual data from a source. Schrenk includes a chapter titled “Scraping Difficult Websites with Browser Macros,” and some purists would call that more a focus on the process known as web scraping rather than screen scraping. But this is minor nitpicking.  

Schrenk’s well-written book offers sample scripts (mostly written in PHP) and example projects that show how to design and write webbots. And his website for the book offers several code libraries that can be downloaded. “The functions and declarations in these libraries provide the basis for most of the example scripts used in this book,” he says. Likewise, his example scripts mostly use that website “as targets, or resources for your webbots to download and take action on” for practice and learning.

It is important, before diving into the programming, to take very careful note of his paragraph titled: “Learn from My Mistakes.” In it, Schrenk emphasizes: “I’ve written webbots, spiders, and screen scrapers for over 15 years, and in the process I’ve made most of the mistakes someone can make. Because webbots are capable of making unconventional demands on website, system administrators can confuse webbots’ requests with attempts to hack into their systems. Thankfully, none of my mistakes has ever led to a courtroom, but they have resulted in intimidating phone calls, scary emails, and very awkward moments. Happily, I can say that I’ve learned from these situations, and it’s been a very long time since I’ve been across the desk from an angry system administrator. You can spare yourself a lot of grief by reading my stories and learning from my mistakes.”

The 362-page 2nd edition has 31 chapters and three appendixes, and it is divided into four major parts:

  • ·         Part I: Fundamental Concepts and Technologies
  • ·         Part II: Projects
  • ·         Part III: Advanced Technical Considerations
  • ·         Part IV: Larger Considerations

That final part includes a very important chapter on keeping webbots and spiders out of legal trouble.

In other words, have fun but be very careful with what you create. As Schrenk emphasizes: “…it’s up to you to do constructive things with the information in this book and not violate copyright law, disrupt networks, or do anything else that would be troublesome or illegal.” And: “If you have questions, talk to a lawyer before you experiment.”

Words to the wise. And, yes, to the wiseasses, as well.

Si Dunn is a novelist, screenwriter, freelance book reviewer, and former software technical writer and software/hardware QA test specialist. He also is a former newspaper and magazine photojournalist. His latest book is Dark Signals, a Vietnam War memoir available now in paperback. He is the author of a detective novel, Erwin’s Law, a novella, Jump, and several other books and short stories.

Switching to the Mac: The Missing Manual, Lion Edition – #bookreview #in #mac #windows

Switching to the Mac: The Missing Manual, Lion Edition
By David Pogue
paperback, list price $29.99; Kindle edition, list price $23.99)

I own and use three Windows PCs during a typical day. But sometimes (don’t ask why), I find myself forced – forced – to use my wife’s Macintosh.

Grrrr. Where do I click? Where are the other mouse buttons? And what do these geeky, alien icons actually mean?

Frankly, I’ve hated Macs for a long, long time. And I’ve especially hated the smug, “Everything’s simpler on a Mac!” attitude that peppy Mac users seem to radiate whenever they are around us gray-haired Windows types who  have been messing with command prompts, anti-virus software, and the Blue Screen of Death since (seemingly) the War of 1812.

That being said, I am a big fan of New York Times tech columnist David Pogue and “The Missing Manual” book series he created.  I use several of O’Reilly’s “Missing” manuals on a frequent basis.

Pogue’s new book is now proving useful for me as a sort of Klingon-to-English translation guide when I am forced – forced –to use my beloved’s dearly beloved Mac.

But in all seriousness, if you are contemplating making the switch or have already switched from Windows to Mac (traitor!), you need this book. It is a well-written, nicely illustrated user’s guide with a strong focus on how to transfer documents and other files from Windows machines to Macs. Often, the transfers go smoothly. “It turns out that communicating with a Windows PC is one of the Mac’s most polished talents,” Pogue notes.

Sometimes, however, the transfers do not go well. Pogue’s huge book (691 pages) also points out some potential pitfalls and remedies, such as possibly losing “memorized transactions, customized report designs, and reconciliations” when transferring from QuickBooks for Windows to QuickBooks to Mac.

Switching to the Mac is organized into five parts:

  • Part 1, Welcome to the Macintosh – Covers the essentials of “everything you see onscreen when you turn on the machine.”
  • Part 2, Making the Move – Covers “the actual process of hauling your software, settings, and even peripherals (like printers and monitors) across the chasm from the PC to the Mac.” Includes steps for running Windows on Macs, “an extremely attractive option.”
  • Part 3, Making Connections – Shows how to set up an Internet connection on a Mac and use Apple’s Internet software suite.
  • Part 4, Putting Down Roots – Gets into more advanced topics “to turn you into a Macintosh power user.”
  • Part 5, Appendixes – Two of the four appendixes cover installation and troubleshooting. One is the “Where’d It Go?” Dictionary for those trying to find familiar Windows controls “in the new, alien Macintosh environment.” And the fourth appendix offers “a master keyboard-shortcut list for the entire Mac OS X universe.”  

Switching to the Mac offers sound reasons (1) why you may prefer to stick with certain Windows for Mac programs on your new Mac and (2) why you may want to abandon certain Windows programs written for Macs and learn to use the Mac programs that are better than, say, PowerPoint or Notepad, for example.

If you happen to be addicted to Microsoft Access and Microsoft Visio, you have a separate choice. You can either switch to FileMaker and OmniGraffle or keep a Windows machine sitting close to your new Mac.

You won’t be alone as a user caught between two different worlds. Writes Pogue: “A huge percentage of ‘switchers’ do not, in fact, switch.  Often, they just add.  They may get a Macintosh (and get into the Macintosh), but they keep the old Windows PC around, at least for a while.”

In my case, you’ll have to pry the Windows keyboard and mouse from my cold, dead fingers. But I’ll keep this hefty book with me, to use both as a how-to guide and as a bludgeon, each time I have to go into the Macintosh wilds and battle the Lion.


Si Dunn is a novelist, screenwriter, freelance book reviewer, and former software technical writer and software/hardware QA test specialist. He also is a former newspaper and magazine photojournalist. His latest book is Dark Signals, a Vietnam War memoir available now in paperback. He is the author of a detective novel, Erwin’s Law, a novella, Jump, and several other books and short stories.