Worst of Times, Best of Times

Staying Sane & Entertained While Forced to Hide from the Coronavirus

Charles Dickens likely did not have a deadly global pandemic in mind when he wrote the “best of times, worst of times” opening for his novel, A Tale of Two Cities. He was contrasting life in profitable, peaceful London with grim life in revolution-torn Paris at the end of the 18th century.

With most Americans now being told to stay away from their jobs and remain sheltered for weeks in their homes or apartments, people are coming face-to-face with a harsh reality: How do we keep ourselves sane and entertained while contained within four walls almost around the clock?

What follows are short reports from five people in different parts of the United States. They describe how they have responded thus far to being confined to quarters. They have not complained of feeling like people under house arrest or like space passengers practicing for a long, mundane cruise to Mars.

For some, at least, the pandemic response has been a time for reflection and reinvention, as well as frequently seeking and needing entertainment.

“Shadow Horse” – Photo by Si Dunn, sidunn@sagecreekproductions.com

Erin J., a Boston college student, is still recovering from coronoavirus-like symptoms. She has been staying in a small living space for several weeks since her university closed and put its classes online.

“Well, I wasn’t tested for it, but I can say that the first week I slept for 16 hours a day and didn’t care much for entertainment. I’d put on anything to have noise. The second week was a little better, but I still slept most of the day and night but had midterm exams to prepare for. Took me four days to write a paragraph. I started consuming more media as a means to stay distracted and try to figure out what was going on. I found movies that were like comfort food and almost played them on loop. By about the end of the second week I started feeling human [again] and was more interested in doing schoolwork, and became more aware that I was stuck inside.

“I’ve stayed entertained by trying to find comfort in media that reminds me of the world I knew.”

***

Terry P., a writer and entertainer in Long Island, N.Y., has chosen a positive and pragmatic approach to coping with the current economic and health disaster:

“Planted a bunch of seeds and ordered a compost bin, planning a vegetable garden. Also taking piano lessons and writing a book for self-employed entertainers about how to kick start their businesses when this all ends. And watching Netflix, of course.”

***

Linda B. is a PRN (pro re nata – “as the situation demands”) worker in Austin, Texas, who currently is not doing much work, but filling time with many other activities.

“Slowly reading a serious book, What the Eyes Don’t See, about the Flint water crisis, by the pediatrician and activist who didn’t stop until the story was told and changes made. Making bread for my neighbors. Cooking new recipes. Using FaceTime, learning Zoom and What’sApp to see and talk to people I love. Staying up-to-date on happenings for my work which doesn’t need an ‘as needed’ PRN employee right now. Walking with another neighbor or [doing] something for exercise most days. Learning what it feels like to see the world “non-24″ by going to bed when I feel like it and staying there 7-8 hours no matter what hour that is. Today, 6 am – 3 pm. Recording the local news in case I’m doing something more fulfilling at the time; then watching without ads. Doing the same with movies and documentaries so that when I choose to watch TV, I can see interesting things or delete it. Learning after three weeks that I can live without touch for today. I may crack tomorrow, but for today, I’m at peace working on the ‘Mindboggler 1000 piece jigsaw puzzle of the Carpathian Mountains’ I picked up on a whim at Half Price Books months ago.”

***

Musician and retired teacher Pamela F. lives in a small-ish town north of Austin, Texas, and avoids boredom by staying active on several fronts:

“Walking twice a day. Sometimes walking with the seven-year-old son of my next-door, single-parent neighbor. Trying to learn Zoom. Writing music. Using FaceTime and Facebook Messenger to see friends and relatives. Eating, and then eating some more. Small projects like cleaning out a drawer or a closet. Napping. Continuing my physical therapy regimen. Playing piano and accordion. Keeping up with friends on Facebook. Reading. Quiet time.”

***

Joe S., a Dallas-area journalist, is taking a more focused approach to using his sheltering-at-home time:

“Reading The Splendid and the Vile by Erik Larson.”

That’s a 547-page work of history subtitled “A Saga of Churchill, Family, and Defiance During the Blitz.” Sounds appropriate and inspiring for coping with current times.

***

Catherine B., an Austin, Texas, university librarian (her school has gone to online classes) also is focusing on a central task, but is taking breaks to pursue other, more entertaining activities:

“I have been reading manuals and a glossary for a new integrated library system, the thing behind the scene that runs the online catalog. In my free time, I am sewing quilt blocks. I got excited when I found the perfect elastic for making masks. [And] Tom and I watched ‘Downton Abbey,’ the series and the movie, on DVD. We started that in early March before the social distancing. I have also made 20-second videos of rain and birds singing.”

***

Many things can be done while stuck indoors, including taking online classes, watching yoga or tai chi how-to videos, reading books previously ignored on your bookshelves, starting a home-based business, baking bread, or taking up new or lapsed hobbies. The possibilities are vast, and the time to get started currently is abundant.

Thanks for reading this effort to make creative use of some of my own inside time. And please feel free to add comments. Something posted here may someday end up in somebody’s sociology book, history book, graduate thesis, movie, or novel about these treacherous times. Who knows?

-30-

Si Dunn is an Austin, Texas, novelist, screenwriter, book reviewer, and journalist. His books include Dark Signals, Jump, and Erwin’s Law.

‘Introducing Data Science’ – A good doorway into the world of processing, analyzing & displaying Big Data – #bookreview

Introducing Data Science

Davy Cielen, Arno D. B. Meysman, and Mohamed Ali

Manning – paperback

The three authors of this book note that “[d]ata science is a very wide field, so wide indeed that a book ten times the size of this one wouldn’t be able to cover it all. For each chapter, we picked a different aspect we find interesting. Some hard decisions had to be made to keep this book from collapsing your bookshelf!”

In their decisions and selections, they have made some good choices. Introducing Data Science is well written and generally well-organized (unless you are overly impatient to get to hands-on tasks).

The book appears to be aimed primarily at individual computer users and persons contemplating possible careers in data science–not those already working in, or heading, big data centers. The book also could be good for managers and others trying to wrap their heads around some data science techniques that could help them cope with swelling mountains of business data.

With this book in hand, you may be impatient to open it to the first chapter and dive headfirst into slicing, dicing, and graphing data. Try to curb your enthusiasm for a little while. Books from Manning generally avoid the “jump in now, swim later” approach. Instead, you get some overviews, explanations and theory first. Then you start getting to the heart of the matter. Some like this approach, while others get impatient with it.

In Introducing Data Science, your “First steps in big data” start happening in chapter five, after you’ve first delved into the data science process: 1. Setting the research goal; 2. Retrieving data; 3. Data preparation, 4. Data exploration; 5. Data modeling; and 6. Presentation and automation.

The “First steps” chapter also is preceded by chapters on machine learning and how to handle large data files on a single computer.

Once you get to Chapter 5, however, your “First steps” start moving pretty quickly. You are shown how to work (at the sandbox level) with two big data applications, Hadoop and Spark. And you get examples of how even Python can be used to write big data jobs.

From there, you march on to (1) the use of NoSQL databases and graph databases, (2) text mining and text analytics, and (3) data visualization and creating a small data science application.

It should be noted and emphasized, however, that the concluding pages of chapter 1 do present “An introductory working example of Hadoop.” The authors explain how to run “a small [Hadoop] application in a big data context,” using a Hortonworks Sandbox image inside a VirtualBox.

It’s not grand, but it is a start in a book that otherwise would take four chapters to get to the first hands-on part.

Near the beginning of their book, the authors also include a worthy quote from Morpheus in “The Matrix”: “I can only show you the door. You’re the one that has to walk through it.”

This book can be a good entry door to the huge and rapidly changing field of data science,  if you are willing to go through it and do the work it presents.

Si Dunn

‘Spear of Light’ – Human vs. post-human on a planet facing destruction – #scifi #bookreview

Spear of Light

The Glittering Edge, Book Two

Brenda Cooper

Pyr – Kindle, paperback

Spear of Light is the second book in The Glittering Edge duology. And it has been my introduction to Brenda Cooper’s science-fiction writing.

For the most part, I am impressed. While I missed Edge of Dark, the duology’s first book, I am pleased at how smoothly I was drawn into Spear of Light, a complex but engrossing tale of humans, post-humans, and robots on the “re-wilded” planet, Nym. This second book in the duology stands nicely on its own.

The general flow of the novel is summarized on other sites, such as Amazon and Pyr, so I won’t rehash it here. But a lone ranger, Charlie Windar, wants desperately to save his rebuilt planet and is caught in the middle of an approaching war between the post-humans (the Next) and the Shining Revolution, a group of humans who want to attack the Next, no matter if it means Nym will be wrecked (again) in the process.

Meanwhile, the Next, who previously were banished from Nym’s solar system and later returned in force, are now quickly building a massive new city on Nym. And the humans caught between the Next and the Shining Revolution cannot figure out why the Next seem driven, this time, to uncover something mysterious within Nym’s ancient history.

(Thanks, Pyr, for sending a review copy.)

Si Dunn

 

Manning’s ‘MongoDB in Action’ has been updated for version 3.0 – #programming #bookreview

MongoDB in Action, Second Edition

Covers MongoDB version 3.0

Kyle Banker

Manning, paperback

Yes, this updated edition of MongoDB in Action is aimed at software developers. However, the book wisely does not ignore those of us who are more casual users of MongoDB.

Indeed, this is a fine how-to book for MongoDB newcomers and casual users, too, particularly if you are patient and willing to read through an introductory chapter focusing on “MongoDB’s history, design goals, and application use cases.”

Many people, of course, just want to jump straight into downloading the software, running it, and playing with it for a while before getting down to any serious stuff such as application use cases. So this book’s Appendix A is the place to go first, so you can get MongoDB onto your Linux, Mac, or Windows computer.  Then, after MongoDB is installed, you can jump back to Chapter 2 to start learning how to use the JavaScript shell.

After that, things quickly  start getting more “practical.” For example, Chapter 3 introduces “Writing programs using MongoDB.” Here, Ruby is employed to work with the MongoDB API. But the author notes: “MongoDB, Inc. provides officially supported, Apache-licensed MongoDB drivers for all of the most popular programming languages. The driver examples in the book use Ruby, but the principles we’ll illustrate are universal and easily transferable to other drivers. Throughout the book we’ll illustrate most commands with the JavaScript shell, but examples of using MongoDB from within an application will be in Ruby.”

I won’t try to sum up everything in this well-written, 13-chapter book. I have used older, 2.X versions of MongoDB in MEAN stack applications. And, separately, I have worked a bit with Ruby and MongoDB. But in each case, I haven’t needed to learn all that much about MongoDB itself, mainly just ensure that it is storing data that can be accessed in the right place and updated, saved or deleted as needed. So this book, written for 3.0.X (and earlier and later) MongoDB releases is an eye-opener for me and one that I will keep around for reference and more learning now that I have upgraded to 3.2.

Part 1 of MongoDB in Action, 2nd edition “provides a broad, practical introduction to MongoDB.” Part 2 delivers “a deep exploration of MongoDB’s document data model.” Part 3, meanwhile, examines MongoDB “from the database administrator’s perspective. This means we’ll cover all the things you need to know about performance, deployments, fault tolerance, and scalability.”

The book’s author knows that readers with some MongoDB experience will not read the book straight through. Instead, they will tackle chapters in many different orders and will even skip some chapters. And this is okay. MongoDB in Action: Second Edition is a book many of us will be happy to have handy whenever we need to get a better grip on some new aspect of working with this very popular open-source document database.

One cautionary note: The author points out that “as of MongoDB v3.0, 32-bit binaries will no longer be supported.” Of course, some 3.X 32-bit binaries are still out there, and you can install them. But you will get a lot of warning messages from MongoDB. So, download a 64-bit binary if your system will support it.

Si Dunn

‘A Brilliant Death’ – Murder mystery, coming of age and homage to 1960s small-town Ohio – #bookreview

A Brilliant Death

Robin Yocum

Seventh Street Books – paperback, Kindle

Writers often are advised to “Write what you know.” Author Robin Yocum clearly has heeded that advice. This is a well-written mystery that also is a coming-of-age story, plus a fine portrait of simpler times in the American heartland during the mid-1960s.

A Brilliant Death is set in a real-life but now unincorporated village, Brilliant, Ohio. Brilliant is a settlement on the Ohio River near the West Virginia border, in an area where steel mills, coal mines and a glass factory once held sway and Polish and other immigrant names are common.

Yocum’s novel focuses on two teenage friends, Mitch Malone and Travis Baron, as they near adulthood in Brilliant and start trying to uncover the truth behind the death of Travis Baron’s mother when he was still an infant. Along the way, the two youths, both promising athletes, continue growing up, getting into typical teenage scrapes, and nearing the time when they will go off to college or off to the Vietnam War.

They do manage to discover the terrible truth behind Travis’s mother’s death. And what they learn puts both of their lives immediately into danger.  Now they must make difficult choices from options they  hoped they would never have to consider.

Si Dunn

Attack of the Killer Parentheses: ‘Clojure in Action, 2nd Edition’ – #bookreview

Clojure in Action, 2nd Edition

Amit Rathore and Francis Avila

Manning – paperback

Clojure seems to be afflicted with a measles-like outbreak of parentheses, and it generally just looks strange to many software developers. And there’s a good reason for that, as this book’s two author point out in their recently released second edition.

“Clojure’s syntax is derived from its Lisp roots: lots of parentheses. It’s alien to most developers with experience in languages with Algol-inspired syntax like C, C++, Java, Python, Ruby, Perl, and so on.”

But Clojure also is an intriguing and powerful choice for many software development projects, Amit Rathore and Francis Avila insist. Clojure is “a functional Lisp on the JVM” (the Java Virtual Machine), and: “It is impossible to separate the Lisp, functional programming, and JVM features of Clojure. At every step they play on each other and tell a compelling software development story….”

I have been tinkering with Clojure on the side, at random spare moments, for more than two years, using a disorganized approach of looking at web postings, building and modifying simple projects that others have posted, and sometimes looking at Clojure how-to books as time permits.

From my perspective, Clojure in Action, 2nd Edition fills a beginner’s need for a friendly, well-organized approach to learning the language and putting it to work effectively. Developers already working with Clojure can benefit from having this book, too, as a handy reference. It covers a lot of ground, using reasonably short paragraphs and offers many short code examples to illustrate its key points.

Clojure in Action, 2nd Edition “assumes no prior experience with Lisp or with any functional programming language,” the authors emphasize. “It starts out with the absolute basics and slowly layers on the different features of the language in  a way to make it all fit together in an intuitive way. It takes a first-principles approach to all the topics, first explaining why something needs to be done a certain way, and only then talking about the Clojure way.”

Clojure is not a language for absolute beginners. The authors assume “you’re familiar with an OO [object-oriented] language like Java, C++, Ruby, or Python, but no background in Java, Lisp, or Clojure is required.” They also assume you have downloaded Clojure and gotten it working on your PC. You can read more about Clojure and download it here.

This expanded 2nd edition states that it covers the “new” features of Clojure 1.6. Of course, Clojure already is up to 1.8, but I have tried many of the code examples at various points in the book and have not encountered problems while running 1.8.

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