A Home for Wayward Boys: Keeping juvenile offenders in line…with God, rifles and a marching band – #bookreview

 

Home for Wayward Boys

A Home for Wayward Boys

The Early History of the Alabama Boys’ Industrial School

Jerry C. Armor

NewSouth Books – paperback, Kindle

Early in the 20th century, male juvenile offenders in Alabama sometimes were sent to the Alabama Boys’ Industrial School (ABIS), near Birmingham, rather than put into prison with adults. Their crimes ranged from manslaughter to smoking cigarettes as minors. A number of orphans, runaways and victims of broken families also ended up there.

Opened in 1900, the ABIS was a not a “reform school” in the typical sense. The boys’ school had been founded by a dedicated, driven and religious woman, Elizabeth Johnston. And it operated with a very unusual structure: its board of directors consisted entirely of women, at a time when women still could not vote in elections and mostly were expected to just stay home and not get involved in business and politics.

As the ABIS grew, so did what it offered to “wayward boys.” At first, it mainly provided food, a rustic but safe place to sleep, religious services and some hard work doing farming, repairs and other tasks on the school’s sprawling acreage. Soon, however, the ABIS began stressing military discipline and training, too–indeed, issuing army-style uniforms and rifles to young juvenile offenders who had been sent to ABIS by Alabama judges. Then a military marching band evolved and expanded, and it eventually led a parade in Birmingham for President Theodore Roosevelt, played with the U.S. Marine Band in Washington, D.C., and appeared at numerous other events.

As the ABIS gained more buildings and staff, it began offering education in a variety of trades, including tailoring and sewing, painting, barbering, sheet metal work, bakery work, and radio repair.

Many of the youths sent to ABIS as offenders turned their lives around and graduated, and some earned outstanding combat records in World War I and World War II. Some even came back to teach and administrate at ABIS.

Jerry C. Armor’s book is an eye-opening and uplifting look at the 75-year history of the Alabama Boys’ Industrial School. He places a special emphasis on the school’s difficult formative years, as well as on funny, sad and strange anecdotes about how some of the youths ended up there.

Armor details how one woman who sensed she was following God’s calling fearlessly lobbied the Alabama governor and state legislature and begged businesses and various organizations for funds and supplies to start the school and keep it running and growing. And he tells the stories of key leaders within the school who helped it survive and thrive during its colorful, yet little-known, history.

A federal law enacted in the 1970s established the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention. And that new agency’s “policies, standards, and recommendations…drastically changed how states dealt with troubled youth,” Armor writes. In 1975, he notes, the Alabama Department of Youth Services assumed control of the ABIS and several other facilities in the state.” The campus soon was renamed, and its programs were changed to meet the new requirements.

Armor’s book includes a call to action for citizens of Alabama who are concerned about today’s high rate of recidivism (70%) for juvenile offenders in their state. The rate was considerably lower, he notes, for the youths sent to the Alabama Boys’ Industrial School.

 — Si Dunn

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Enemies at Home: A Flavia Albia Novel – A cool detective procedural set in ancient Rome – #mystery #bookreview

 

Lindsey Davis Enemies at Home

 

Enemies at Home

A Flavia Albia Novel

Lindsey Davis

 ( Minotaur Books, hardback, Kindle )

Can a 29-year-old widow make it as a private detective in first century A.D. Rome?

Flavia Albia has some friends in semi-high places. And she has one very important family connection: She is the adopted daughter of Marcus Didius Falco, one of Rome’s best-known “private informers,” the ancient equivalent of a modern private eye.

Flavia has taken over her father’s office, and she keeps needing new cases.  But in the private informer business, it’s “no win, no pay.” So,  she is always on the lookout for a case she can both win and profit from, in a legal system where women have no rights in matters of law and where she must compete with male private informers who do have rights.

Unfortunately, the case that suddenly lands in Flavia’s lap in Enemies at Home does not seem to hold much promise:

“Even before I started, I knew I should say no,” Flavia states at the book’s beginning.

“There are rules for private informers accepting a new case. Never take on clients who cannot pay you. Never do favors for friends. Don’t work with relatives, Think carefully about legal work. If, like me, you are a woman, keep clear of men you find attractive. The Aviola inquiry broke every one of those rules, not the least because the clients had no money, yet I took it on. Will I never learn?”

 Not yet. She meets up with a magistrate, an aedile, named Tiberius Manlius Faustus, with whom she has worked before and finds attractive. (Can “Manlius” be viewed as a Latinized pun on “manly”? Yep.) Faustus has just been assigned to deal with a very complicated case within his jurisdiction, and he needs Flavia’s help to try to sort things out.

A man and his wife have been brutally murdered and robbed, apparently by intruders, and the couples’ slaves have fled to the Temple of Ceres, desperately hoping to get asylum so they can save their lives.

“The slaves got wind of their plight,” Flavia informs us. “They knew the notorious Roman law when a head of household was murdered at home. By instinct the authorities went after the wife, but that was no use if she was dead too. So unless the dead man had another obvious enemy, his slaves fell under suspicion. Whether guilty or not, they were put to death. All of them.”

Flavia’s task, of course, is to attempt to help exonerate the slaves. But Roman law literally is a vicious beast, sometimes. Criminals and those merely suspected of a crime can be thrown to the lions or sewn into large bags along with dangerous animals and dropped into the sea. And that’s just two of the many ways capital punishment can be meted out in the Roman Empire.

Flavia is the slaves’ only hope. And she is armed with nothing but curiosity, questions and bluster, plus some occasional help from the aedile, Manlius Faustus, as she goes where no woman typically has gone before, at least in recent years, in Roman society.

Enemies at Home features a very big cast of characters (spanning two pages at the front of the book). And it is somewhat easy to grow confused by (and a bit wearied of) virtually every male name ending in “-us” and almost every female name ending in “-a.”

For the most part, however, this second Flavia Albia novel is fun and informative reading. Lindsey Davis is a master at moving her characters about in ancient Roman settings. She keeps them both human and limited by the pace, technology, laws and social mores of the Roman Empire (during the reign of the allegedly paranoid emperor, Domitian). Her dialogue often is wickedly sharp and funny, and, except for an occasional Latin word here and there, no effort is made to have the characters speak in any tongue other than modern lingo.

If you have been hoping Falco will reappear and have a cameo role in this new book, be prepared to wait for the next novel in the series and see if he shows up there. Flavia Albia is now her own woman. She emerges strongly from her father’s shadow in Enemies at Home and demonstrates why she also deserves to be known as one of the very best public informers in first-century Rome.

Si Dunn

Book Brief: Short screenplay DEATH ORBIT now on Kindle as a one-act play

With my daughter as co-author, I have spun off a micro-budget one-act play from my short science-fiction screenplay DEATH ORBIT. The Kindle version is now available and briefly on sale for $0.99 USD.

DEATH ORBIT: A Play in One Act is set in the future, in the seedy courtroom of an ice-mining colony. A young law student volunteers to defend an indigent prisoner who is facing the death penalty within a system where corporate money rules and the prosecution can get laws changed in minutes, to its favor.

— Si Dunn

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Lunch with Buddha – An entertaining, engrossing, thought-provoking American road-trip novel – #bookreview

Lunch with Buddha
Roland Merullo
(PFP/Ajar, Kindle, paperback)

To be honest, I was not really aware of Roland Merullo until his publisher contacted me offering a review copy of an enticingly titled new novel, Lunch with Buddha.

I could blame my “Who?” reaction on my intense focus toward reviewing technology books over the past two years. And I could blame it on empirical evidence that it’s really tough to sell works of fiction these days.

Indeed, several writers of novels and short story collections have told me they don’t get much publicity help from their publishers. Some also have declared they were taking up self-publishing so they could (a) get their books into print (or its digital equivalent), (b) keep more of their paltry earnings, and (c) try their hand at book promotion. Furthermore, I have data — very hard data — showing that virtually no one on Planet Earth has yet read my novel, Erwin’s Law, nor my experimental novella, Jump.

Thus, bottom line, I have not been paying very close attention to the world of fiction lately.

Immediately, I was impressed  (and jarred) to learn that (1) Roland Merullo’s seventh novel, Breakfast with Buddha, is now in its 14th printing; (2) Lunch with Buddha, published late last year, is his eleventh novel and already in its second printing; AND (3) Lunch with Buddha’s completion and publication was funded, at least in part, with significant Kickstarter contributions from Merullo fans.

Intriguingly, Roland Merullo turned down a six-figure advance from a major publishing house and chose a small, independent publisher to bring out his new book.

So he must be good, right?

He’s better than good, actually. Roland Merullo is one of the best, most entertaining writers I’ve encountered in a long time. Seldom am I hooked by a book’s first few paragraphs. But, in Lunch with Buddha, Merullo blends verbal calmness, clarity, wit and depth to create an engaging, absorbing story that flows smoothly from darkly humorous opening to meaningful end.

His new tale is a road-trip novel that covers an odd, yet very American, route: from Seattle to North Dakota, in a borrowed, battered pickup truck nicknamed “Uma.”

Otto Ringling, a New York editor of culinary books and recent widower, is taking the journey with reluctance, while searching for peace of mind and new meanings for his suddenly altered life.

His traveling companion on the drive is his sister’s former guru, “His Holiness” Volya Rinpoche, a Siberian “semi-Buddhist” who now is the sister’s husband and father of their young daughter, Shelsa. Volya still has many questions and misconceptions about life in these not-so-United States. But he also has an infectious spirit, an unshakable spirituality, and plenty of confidence that all will be well and work out in the end.

Otto, meanwhile, is just trying to get a renewed grip on existence. “One of the side effects of losing a spouse–at least for me–had been a peculiar inability to perform the most mundane tasks,” he says in the book, adding:

“Making plane and hotel reservations, shopping for food, setting out the trash on time–these duties, which ordinarily I would have completed with a practiced ease, now seemed as daunting as the learning of a Chinese dialect. I let things slide. For the first time in family history, bills were paid late. The dry cleaners had to call three times to remind me to pick up my shirts. My children could be harsh with me about these failings, but I took their casual criticisms like a battered old fighter takes punches. I would stand. I was determined to stand. I was determined to stay sane, and love them, and help them envision a new life after our old one had been ripped to pieces.”

While Otto and Volya drive across Washington state, Idaho, Montana, and into North Dakota, Otto’s sister, Cecelia, her young daughter Shelsa, and Otto’s children Anthony (20) and Natasha (22), are all riding Amtrak, taking a separate route. They’ve been to Whidbey Island, off the coast of Washington state, to witness Otto scattering his wife’s ashes. Now they are heading for Dickinson, North Dakota, where Celia and Volya live — in Otto’s view — “on the far side of some line that marked the boundary of ordinary American reality.”

Along the way, Otto and Volya have several humorous–and sometimes troubling–encounters with contemporary American culture and values. Otto, for example, tries to explain to Volya the meanings of some strange signs they see along the highway, such as “REPTILE ZOO AND EXPRESSO” and “EAT BIG FOOD.”

Otto and Volya also have debates over religion and spirituality as the widower seeks understandable meanings he can attach to life, death, and whatever lies beyond our mystery-shrouded finality. For example:

 “What is the goal?” I asked, trying to slip away from it. “What’s the whole point? Enlightenment? Eternal life? What?”

He patted me on the shoulder for the millionth time, and said, “You purify. You go and go. Life cuts you and you try and try and try and pretty soon–”

“You become beautiful.”

“Yes. Good.”

“But toward what are we going and going? What does the beauty look like?”

He shrugged almost helplessly, and for a moment I was gripped hard by the hand of doubt. He seemed only an ordinary man then, and I wanted more than that from him, more than cryptic answers and shrugs. A small inner voice suggested he’d been fooling us all these years, playing a role, maybe even working a scam.

“I can show you,” he said. “I can’t tell you.”

“All right. Please show me, then. I’m having a crisis of faith. I’m a little bit lost.”

He nodded sympathetically. “We find you,” he said. “Don’t worry too much….”

Lunch with Buddha has the same key characters as Roland Merullo’s best-selling Breakfast with Buddha. And a third book, aptly titled Dinner with Buddha, is said to be in the works.

Fortunately, Lunch is written so it can be picked up and immediately enjoyed by those who have not previously read Breakfast. Indeed, Lunch with Buddha will make many readers go back and devour Breakfast, then eagerly anticipate Dinner–and check out some of Roland Merullo’s other works of fiction and nonfiction while waiting for the next serving.

Geoffrey Chaucer and Jack Kerouac are the two names that  pop most quickly to mind when the debate topic is “classic road-trip novels.”  I move that we now add Roland Merullo to that short, but esteemed, list.

Si Dunn

Steven Saylor’s ‘The Seven Wonders’ – A fine intro to Gordianus the Finder, famous sleuth of ancient Rome – #bookreview #in #mystery #fiction

The Seven Wonders: A Novel of the Ancient World
Steven Saylor
(Minotaur Books, hardback, list price $25.99; Kindle edition, $12.99)

To be honest, until I picked up this book, I had paid zero attention to best-selling author Steven Saylor’s long-running Roma Sub Rosa series of mysteries set in ancient times, in the Roman Empire. The hero in that series’ 10 novels and two short story collections is Gordianus the Finder, Rome’s most sought-after investigator.

I’ve never been keen on stories (or movies) where people run around in togas and sandals, swear upon assorted gods and goddesses, and kill each other with swords or poisons.

Also, my notion of private detectives has tended to go back only as far as Sherlock Holmes. I’ve mainly been a Spenser/Marlowe/Hammer kind of guy. You know, fists and firearms, not swords and sandals.

The Seven Wonders, the new “prequel” to the Roma Sub Rosa series, has, however, just expanded my horizon quite a bit. Saylor has created a mystery- and adventure-packed tale that introduces Gordianus as a young man, before he has assumed the mantle of “The Finder” from his father.

The tale is set in 92 B.C., a time when the Roman Empire still dominates Greece. But rumors of war are afoot (literally), spies are everywhere, and even the most seemingly trustworthy friend cannot really be trusted amid all of the anti-Roman political intrigue.

It is also the year when Gordianus has reached – and at last crossed – the dividing line between childhood and getting to wear the “manly toga” of an adult. He’s now ready to leave home – Rome – and have some adventures.

He soon gets much more than he expects as he travels with his tutor and travel guide, the aging Antipater of Sidon, “one of the most celebrated poets in the world, famed not only for the elegance of his verses but for the almost magical way he could produce them impromptu, as if drawn from the aether.”

A real figure in history, Antipater has been given at least some of the credit for coming up with the famous list of the Seven Wonders of the World.

In the novel, the poet leaves Rome under mysterious circumstances but takes Gordianus along as he revisits each of the Seven Wonders. He carefully tutors the young Roman, yet things quickly and repeatedly go awry. At their first stop, for example, the Greeks’ wondrous Temple of Artemis at Ephesus, a young girl drops dead unexpectedly during a major celebration. And Gordianus stealthily investigates, using skills learned from his father, a man who “called himself Finder, because men hired him to find the truth.”

The Finder’s son soon determines that the young girl was murdered. Meanwhile, another young girl has been blamed and will die if Gordianus can’t solve his first case fast enough. He succeeds in a clever way, kills his first bad guy, and also has his first sexual encounter, thanks to the sensuous generosity of a beautiful slave woman who has helped him trap the murderer.  

There are then six more Wonders to see, and at each stop, Saylor provides the reader with mysteries rich in history, legend, danger, plot twists and engrossing entertainment as the youthful Gordianus struggles to puzzle them out.

Steven Saylor, who lives in Berkeley, California, and Austin, Texas, is a rare kind of writer, one who deftly blends scholarly detail with fast-paced fiction and makes dead worlds seem to come alive again.

I’m now a Spenser/Marlowe/Hammer/Gordianus kind of guy when it comes to detective fiction. And, thanks to this clever prequel, I’m ready to stop ignoring and start reading the Roma Sub Rosa series.

The Seven Wonders will be available starting June 5, 2012 and can be pre-ordered on Amazon.com.

#

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.

Making Embedded Systems (for things that blink & go ‘Beep!’ in the night) – #programming #bookreview

Making Embedded Systems
By Elecia White
(O’Reilly, paperback, list price $39.99; Kindle edition, list price $31.99)

Elecia White loves embedded systems. “The first time a motor turned on because I told it to, I was hooked,” she writes in her new book, Making Embedded Systems. “I quickly moved away from pure software and into a field where I can touch the world.”

In that world, she has “worked on DNA scanners, inertial measurement units for airplanes and race cars, toys for preschoolers, a gunshot location system for catching criminals, and assorted medical and consumer devices.”

It is a world where “embedded systems don’t have operating systems. The software runs on the bare metal. When the software says ‘turn that light on,’ it says it to the processor without an intermediary.”

So this is not a book about embedded operating systems. Just embedded systems. And the intended audience is intermediate and experienced programmers seeking new challenges.

The author’s basic definition of an embedded system is “a computerized system that is purpose-built for its application.”

She says she wrote her book (and it is well-written, by the way) “almost as a story, to be read from cover to cover. The information is technical (extremely so in spots), but the presentation is casual.”

So she hopes readers will not treat Making Embedded Systems as “a technical manual where you can skip into the middle and read only what you want.” With that approach, “you’ll miss a lot of information…[and] You’ll also miss the jokes, which is what I really would feel bad about.”

Embedded system compilers typically support only C or C++ (and often just a subset of that language), she notes. And: “There is a growing popularity for Java, but the memory management inherent to the language works only on a large system.”

Meanwhile, debugging an embedded system often can be challenging, because it’s not always easy to tell if a problem lies in the software or in the associated hardware.

Elecia White’s 310-page book is divided into 10 chapters, with illustrations, code examples and a good index:

  1. Introduction(Discusses embedded systems and how their development differs from traditional software development.)
  2. Creating a System Architecture(How to create – and document – a system architecture.)
  3. Getting Your Hands on the Hardware(Dealing with hardware/software integration and board bring-up.)
  4. Outputs, Inputs, and Timers(The simple act of making an LED blink is more complicated than you might think.)
  5. Managing the Flow of Activity(How to set up your machine, how to use [or not use] interrupts, and how to make a state machine.)
  6. Communicating with Peripherals(“Different serial communications forms rule embedded systems.…” But: “Networking, bit-bang, and parallel buses are not to be discounted.”)
  7. Updating Code(Options for replacing the program running in a processor.)
  8. Doing More with Less(How to reduce RAM consumption, code space, and processor cycles.)
  9. Math(“Most embedded systems need to do some form of analysis.” Make your system faster by “[u]nderstanding how mathematical operations and floating points work [and don’t work]….”)
  10. Reducing Power Consumption(Your system may run on batteries. Better system architecture and reducing processor cycles can help cut power drain.)

Making Embedded Systems also includes helpful information on how to read a schematic diagram, why it’s best to run tests on three of the same prototype devices, not just one, and what interviewers look for when meeting with applicants for embedded systems jobs.

An embedded system, the author says, often is viewed as a jigsaw puzzle that only fits together one way. But she challenges readers to see the puzzle as also having “a time dimension that varies over its whole life: conception, prototyping, board bring-up, debugging, testing, release, maintenance, and repeat.”

Embedded system design presents many challenges, she says, and demands constant flexibility.

“Our goal is to be flexible enough to meet the product goals while dealing with the resource constraints and other challenges inherent to embedded systems.”

Si Dunn

A Bug Hunter’s Diary: A Guided Tour through the Wilds of Software Security – #programming #bookreview

A Bug Hunter’s Diary: A Guided Tour through the Wilds of Software Security
By Tobias Klein
(No Starch Press, paperback, list price $39.95; Kindle edition, list price $31.95)

If your passion or desire is to find and kill software bugs and fight hackers, you should check out this well-written how-to book.

Tobias Klein, an information security specialist, has tracked down many difficult bugs and identified security vulnerabilities in some of the world’s best-known software, including Apple’s iOS, the Mac OS X kernel, web browsers, and the VLC media player, among others.

Using a diary approach, plus code examples and illustrations, Klein describes a bug he has just discovered in a software package. Then he illustrates how it creates a security vulnerability that a hacker could exploit, and he describes how to fix or at least reduce its risks.

Chapters 2 through 8 each focus on separate bugs, and Klein includes a list of “lessons learned” for programmers who want to avoid creating similar problems.

Klein’s well-illustrated book is organized as follows:

  • Chapter 1: Bug Hunting – (a brief overview.)
  • Chapter 2: Back to the ‘90s – (shows how he discovered a bug and vulnerability in a Tivo movie file that allowed him to crash a VLC media player and gain control of the instruction pointer.)
  • Chapter 3: Escape from the WWW Zone – (illustrates how and where he found a bug in the Solaris kernel and the “exciting challenge” of demonstrating how it could be exploited for arbitrary code execution.)
  • Chapter 4: Null Pointer FTW – (describes “a really beautiful bug” that opened a vulnerability into “the FFmpeg multimedia library that is used by many popular software projects, including Google Chrome, VLC media player, MPlayer, and Xine to name just a few.”)
  • Chapter 5: Browse and You’re Owned – (discusses how he found an exploitable bug in an ActiveX control for Internet Explorer.)
  • Chapter 6: One Kernel to Rule Them All – (focuses on how he decided to search for bugs in some third-party Microsoft Windows drivers and found one in an antivirus software package.)
  • Chapter 7: A Bug Older than 4.4BSD – (how he found an exploitable bug in the XNU kernel OS X.)
  • Chapter 8: The Ringtone Massacre – (how he found an exploitable bug in an early version of the iPhone’s MobileSafari browser that enabled him to modify ringtone files and access the program counter.)
  • Appendix A: Hints for Hunting – (“…some vulnerability classes, exploitation techniques, and common issues that can lead to bugs.”)
  • Appendix B: Debugging – (about debuggers and the debugging process.)
  • Appendix C: Mitigation – (discusses mitigation techniques.)

Tobias Klein is the author of two previous information security books that were published in Germany. Because hackers use many of the same tools as those seeking to keep them out, there is an important limit on how much detail Klein is able to impart in this book.

As he notes in a disclaimer: “The goal of this book is to teach readers how to identify, protect against, and mitigate software security vulnerabilities. Understanding the techniques used to find and exploit vulnerabilities is necessary to thoroughly grasp the underlying problems and appropriate mitigation techniques. Since 2007, it is no longer legal to create or distribute “hacking tools” in Germany, my home country. Therefore, to comply with the law, no full working exploit code is provided in this book. The examples simply show the steps used to gain control of the execution flow (the instruction pointer or program counter control) of a vulnerable program.”

Si Dunn