Step away from the ‘smartphone’ and try using your hands and mind to make something – #bookreview

The Make: Series of How-to Books

A British scientist made headlines a few years ago when she warned that young people no longer make or repair things. It has become all too easy for them now, she cautioned, to simply throw away old or broken devices and buy new ones.

A key point was that many things currently being discarded could be fixed or refurbished and put to new uses. It would just take a little effort, a little learning, and some imagination.

I ran into some of that “no longer make or repair things” attitude a few years ago while working temporarily as a substitute teacher. If you have ever been a substitute in a public high school or middle school, you likely know that students often view “subs” as an excuse to pay absolutely no attention to anything he or she says.

When I could get no interest or response to the day’s assigned work in a science class, I tried introducing a challenge: Imagine you have become stranded on a desert island in the Pacific Ocean, and you have just a few items with which to try to survive and attract the attention of a passing ship. The items ranged from coconuts and palm fronds to a pocket mirror, a small magnifying glass, a couple of cups, some string and a safety-pin.

I figured the kids might come up with some clever ways to (1) crack open the coconuts for food and liquid, (2) start a fire using a magnifying glass and dried palm fronds, (3) use the string and safety-pin to catch a fish to cook over the fire, (4) use the cups to boil seawater and capture the steam to make a little drinking water, and (5) prepare a separate pile of palm fronds to burn as a rescue signal to a passing ship.

Ha. At first, the students seemed intrigued and engaged by the challenge. They immediately started calling out survival “strategies.” Unfortunately, most of their ideas started with two concepts: “First, I’d go to the mall and buy…” or “First, I’d go online and buy….”

The reality of being stranded in isolation without immediate communication did not even register with them at first. When they did begin to try to imagine surviving without their smartphones, they quickly ran out of ideas and became sullen or antagonistic toward me.

This experience also became the straw that finally broke the back of my desire to continue as a substitute teacher. I had grown up at a time when making, tinkering, building, and repairing all were noble pursuits for a teenager interested in science, electronics, space and engineering. If I wanted a shortwave radio or a new type of model airplane or a small rocket I could launch in my back yard, I built them from scratch or combined pieces of previous projects. None of this experience registered with my students. And my next attempts to stir up enthusiasm for making and repairing things similarly fell flat.

Make It So?

Do you worry that your kids are growing up not knowing how to make things or fix things? Do you fret that you no longer remember how to make things or fix things?

Working with your hands, eyes and brain – and not just mindlessly swiping an index finger across a tiny screen – can be both physically and mentally rewarding.

Of course, the web is alive with “how to” information for making or repairing almost anything. And I make occasional pilgrimages to public libraries and bookstores to find reference materials and instruction books related to specific projects.

I am an unabashed fan of the “Make:” series of books from Maker Media. I don’t build all of their projects, but I do try out some of them. And I enjoy reading about zany, yet sometimes practical, stuff such as (1) how to use a magnet to tell if money is counterfeit, (2) how to create artwork that actually does something, using just a handful of electronic components, (3) how to generate electric power with several lemons connected in series, or (4) how to make some really good paper airplanes and paper helicopters. The “Make:” books consistently feature clear, well-organized instructional text, illustrations and photographs of how things go together.

Books such as Tinkering: Kids Learn by Making Stuff (2nd edition), Easy 1+2+3 Projects, and Planes, Gliders, and Paper Rockets can appeal to parents and children who are in elementary school or older. For older kids and their parents, or for would-be engineers, Make: books such as Bluetooth, Getting Started with Intel Edison, and 3D Printing Projects can be helpful and enlightening how-to guides. Books on numerous other topics also are offered.

Do your kids (and/or you) seem unhealthily addicted now to clutching and staring at smartphones all day? You may want to try putting the devices aside and seeing what you can create with your hands, your mind, some household materials and a few readily available gadgets that don’t require pricey data plans and contracts.

You can do it! Power off now! (Okay, for just a few minutes at first if you insist and if you have a really bad case of smartphone withdrawal.)

— Si Dunn

Go in Action – A comprehensive overview, from ‘Hello, Go’ to ‘Testing & Benchmarking’ – #programming #bookreview

Go in Action

William Kennedy, with Brian Ketelsen and Erik St. Martin

Manning – paperback

The authors of Go in Action assume that you are a working developer who is proficient with some other language, such as Java, Ruby, Python, C# or C++.

However, their book is written well, has good illustrations and offers small to moderate-sized code examples. So, someone who is less than a “working developer” also can pick up this work and use it to get a good start on mastering Go.

The Go language, developed at Google, “has concurrency built in.” Also: “Go uses interfaces as the building blocks of code reuse.” And it has “a powerful standard library,” Kennedy, Ketelsen and St. Martin point out. (They are well-known figures in the Go community.)

Some readers likely will mixed feelings about using the online Go Playground rather than downloading and installing the software. But the book’s three authors emphasize: “Go developers use the Playground to share code, ideas, test theories, and debug their code, as you soon will too.”

They add: “Without installing Go on your computer, you can use almost all that Go provides right from your web browser.”

The major topics covered in the book include Go’s language syntax, type system, concurrency, channels, and testing, among others. If you want a clear, concise and reasonably comprehensive overview of Go, consider Go in Action, from the get-go.

Si Dunn

 

 

‘Meteor in Action’: A good how-to guide for learning a popular JavaScript framework – #programming #bookreview

 

Meteor in Action

Stephan Hochhaus and Manuel Schoebel

Manning – paperback

I have worked with several JavaScript frameworks, and Meteor has become a favorite, mainly because it is closely related to the MEAN stack family and plays well with MongoDB and Node.js.

As the Meteor in Action authors note: “Meteor runs on top of Node.js and moves the application logic to the browser, which is often referred to as single-page applications. The same language is used across the entire stack, which makes Meteor an isomorphic platform. As a result, the same JavaScript code can be used on the server, the client, and even in the database.”

Meteor is versatile and easy to use, particularly for simple applications. But, like any other JS framework, it does have a learning curve. And there are some inherent weaknesses, as well as strengths, that must be considered when deciding if Meteor is the right choice for a particular project.

Meteor in Action can give you a good grounding in Meteor’s basics, plus solid momentum along the path toward Meteor mastery. The book begins with a polished and not-too-lengthy overview of Meteor’s Open Source framework. Then it shows how to build a small, reactive game application. From there, the major topics include: templates; data; fully reactive editing; users, authentications, and permissions; exchanging data; routing; the package system; advanced server methods; building and debugging; and going into production.

Another reviewer has stated that parts of this book may be outdated soon, because some of the technology associated with Meteor is changing fast. But not every work site immediately will keep up with the latest and “greatest” changes to Meteor software, of course. And, you may encounter applications needing support that are still running earlier releases of Meteor.

This  is a worthy and valuable book for anyone just starting to learn Meteor. And it likewise can be helpful to Meteor users who want better understanding of the framework, how it is put together, and how it can be used effectively in large applications. The two authors of this book have been working with Meteor since the framework’s “infancy” in 2011.

Si Dunn

 

 

 

The Survivors: A complex mystery unfolds in this good series-debut novel – #fiction #bookreview

 

The Survivors

A Cal Henderson Novel

Robert Palmer

Seventh Street Books – paperback, Kindle

 

What a swamp a single lie can lead to.

Washington, D.C., psychologist Cal Henderson thinks this to himself while he is trying, years later, to sort out the real reasons behind why his two young brothers and father were shot to death. and then his mother committed suicide as he watched, helpless.

Cal’s friend, Scottie Glass, also was shot and badly wounded that day. But just before Cal’s mother took her own life, she saw Cal in an upstairs window and signaled him, strangely, to get down, to hide.

Why had she killed four people including herself and left Cal’s friend critically injured, yet warned Cal to hide? Hide from what? Or whom?

Until now, Cal has managed to keep most of these childhood horrors somewhat in check, stored far back in his mind. His psychology practice is thriving, and his clients have many issues of their own to keep his mind occupied and challenged.

Then Scottie Glass suddenly shows up after many years, fiercely determined to find out who really shot him and all of the others. And the way Scottie starts confronting important people in the nation’s capitol of purchased power and influence quickly lands him–and Cal, by association–on the FBI’s radar. Cal’s job, at first, is to try to keep Scottie out of jail. But Cal soon is drawn into his friend’s dogged investigation and soon has to take the lead as Scottie keeps using his computer skills to uncover more and more links and leads that could answer Cal’s questions, too.

A caution: The Survivors likely will not be a “fast read.” The story is complex. And it is well written, with many characters, details, and settings. So be patient; give things time to develop. For me, the story began to click solidly into place at page 75, when FBI agent Jamie Weston tells Cal: “D.C. is a whole different universe. You think you’re playing Go Fish for this guy Scott Glass. Then you find out the game is really Poker and the man holding all the cards is some sort of senator or lobbyist you’ve never heard of.”

Indeed, how a years-ago murder-suicide can have a bearing on present-day, multi-billion-dollar defense contracts is just one part of the intricate mystery that unfolds in this series-debut first novel written by Robert Palmer, a practicing Washington, D.C., lawyer and law professor.

Si Dunn

 

 

 

 

The Guise of Another: A gripping thriller with a dark soul – #fiction #bookreview

 

 

The Guise of Another

Allen Eskens

Seventh Street Books – paperback, Kindle, Audio Book

This engrossing, exciting new detective thriller by Minnesota novelist Allen Eskens has many startling twists and turns. It also has a dark soul.

Under suspicion of corruption, Minneapolis police detective Alexander “Festus” Rupert has been reassigned to the Frauds Unit–definitely a demotion for a Medal of Valor winner who has solved murders and saved lives. To add to his humiliation, he has been cast into a basement office in City Hall. Essentially, he now has nowhere to go except up. Or possibly to jail.

When he starts investigating the false identity of someone who died in a car crash, he finds himself edging into a much bigger case, one that may help him resurrect his shattered law-enforcement career.

The case soon becomes even bigger than he imagined. And Rupert gets on the trail of people who can be both deceitful and deadly while hardly blinking an eye.

Allen Eskens’ first novel, The Life We Bury , won numerous awards and accolades in 2014 and early 2015. In The Guise of Another, Eskens and Seventh Street Books have another well-written winner on their hands.

Si Dunn

 

Idyll Threats: In 1997, a small-town police chief must solve a murder that can expose his deepest secret – #bookreview

 

Idyll Threats

Stephanie Gayle

Seventh Street Bookspaperback, Kindle

Recent and seemingly rapid changes in American society may make some potential readers of this book wonder why it is a big deal that a police chief would try to hide being gay.

However, America was a much different world in 1997, when this series-debut novel is set. And society today is still not so open and accepting in many of the nation’s smaller towns, as recent news events have shown.

Police Chief Thomas Lynch loves his new job, but after leaving the New York Police Department following the death of his partner, he is having to adjust to being in a town where serious crime almost never happens. When a murder suddenly happens and Chief Lynch discovers he recognizes the victim, he knows he is now caught up in a very difficult situation for his career.

If he reveals how and where he saw her just hours before she was killed, he will have a lot to explain, and his sexual orientation immediately will be revealed. So he must try to solve the case mostly on his own, amid increasing pressure from the mayor and rising suspicions among some of the police officers he oversees.

Author Stephanie Gayle writes clear, concise, short sentences that flow smoothly and create detailed pictures in the reader’s mind. And, by setting the series opener in 1997, she has left herself plenty of room to develop her complex main character as American society, at least in some areas, gradually becomes more open and accepting in the background.

Si Dunn

 

 

 

Unity in Action: A top-notch how-to guide for game developers – #gamedev #programming

Unity in Action

Joseph Hocking

Manning – paperback

Unity, the cross-platform game development environment, is easy to download and get running. But it definitely is not easy to learn without some help.

Fortunately, Joe Hocking’s Unity in Action makes it reasonably straightforward to learn how to develop games in 3D, as well as with Unity’s new 2D capabilities. The book takes the reader from “Hello, World” all the way to “Putting the parts together into a complete game” and then “Deploying your game to players’ devices.”

Even with this fine book, however, game development can be hard and complicated work. There are many different elements to consider, such as “Adding enemies and projectiles to the 3D game”, “Developing graphics for your game”, “Adding interactive devices and items within the game,” and putting sound effects and music into your game. Hocking’s book does a good job of showing how to handle these tasks, plus many more.

You may have heard Unity described as a game development environment where you don’t have to know how to program. Yes, you might be able to create some games without programming skills. But, “to produce commercial titles” using Unity, you definitely need some programming experience, Hocking emphasizes. In this case, you should have some knowledge of C#, but a background in some other object-oriented (OO) programming language will be helpful if you are new to C#, he adds.

Hocking’s book has many examples, illustrations, headings and subheadings. But step-by-step listings are sparse. Therefore, be prepared to read the text closely and, if necessary, develop lists of steps yourself. There is nothing wrong with this approach, and it is not really a criticism of the book. Game development, after all, is not something that you can, nor should, just dive into and speed through, step by step. It requires a lot of careful planning and thought before you start.

Unity in Action wastes no time. It gets right to the essential stuff you need to know. And it can get you into action reasonably fast as a game developer. But “reasonably fast” in this case must be defined by how quickly you personally can learn to handle Unity, plus the myriad tasks of planning, creating, testing, revising and distributing a game.

Si Dunn