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

 

 

Ionic in Action – A solid guide to building hybrid mobile apps with Ionic and AngularJS – #programming #bookreview

Ionic in Action

Hybrid Mobile Apps with Ionic and AngularJS

Jeremy Wilken

(Manning, paperback)

Ionic in Action is a very good introduction to the Ionic framework, which the author describes as “a combination of tools and utilities….” These tools and utilities enable developers “to quickly build hybrid mobile apps using the same technology used to build websites and web applications, primarily HTML, CSS (Cascading Style Sheets) and JavaScript.” Using Ionic, you build “hybrid mobile apps,” which employ a browser window to display the user interface.

Ionic in Action shows how build three different mobile web apps. And, while working on those apps, you encounter virtually every feature that Ionic offers. I recently started learning Ionic, so I am pleased with how this book is organized and impressed that it has some important blessings from Adam Bradley, a co-creator of the Ionic framework.

Ionic is built on top of AngularJS, and it interacts with Cordova. The author of Ionic in Action, Jeremy Wilken, promises that being familiar with AngularJS is “helpful but not required.” However, as someone who has wrestled with AngularJS (and been slammed to the scope mat more than once), I am pleased that this book includes a chapter titled “What you need to know about AngularJS.” And, as in the rest of the book, you learn by doing, not just by reading explanations and looking at illustrations.

In the Angular chapter, you build a basic web application using AngularJS. Of course, one chapter does not take the place of a good AngularJS tutorial. But it provides a useful starting point.

Whether you are working to become a mobile app developer or seeking to improve and widen some existing skills, this is a good book both to learn from and keep handy in your reference library.

Si Dunn

Make: Paper Inventions – A fun how-to book for kids and their adults

 

 

 

Make: Paper Inventions

Kathy Ceceri

Maker Media, Inc. – paperback

Don’t just hand this book to your kids, say “Have fun,” and then go off to play with your computer. Get out the glue, scissors and paper and join in.

You might enjoy seeing what happens  when you (1) cut all the way around a Möbius strip or (2) fold a single strip of paper into a versatile and surprising trihexaflexagon, or (3) try your hand at quilling. That, the author writes, is “the art of creating 2-D and 3-D designs out of thin paper spirals and curls.”

Make: Paper Inventions opens with a nice, succinct overview of the history of paper and the fact that it was not made from the hard interior of trees until the mid-19th century. Before then, paper was made from many other materials, such as linen, cotton, the inside of certain tree barks, and the flattened stalks of papyrus plants.

The first project in the book is the messiest, and you may not want to use your favorite blender. But it will provide good teaching moments for kids (and their adults). The text and photographs show how to make new paper from several sheets of recycled copy paper. You will not want to run the homemade paper through your laser printer, but it can be used for art projects.

Kids can handle some of the paper projects in this book by themselves. However, the more complicated ones, such as building a large geodesic dome from newspaper pages, definitely will need adult guidance and encouragement. And certain materials may need to be ordered.

Meanwhile, the final chapters of this fine book offer projects that mostly involve folding pieces of paper. And they provide some focus on mathematics, such as how to fold paper in such a way that just one diagonal cut will result in a five-pointed star.

Make: Paper Inventions can help put more STEAM (science, technology, engineering, art, and mathematics) into the lives of your kids–and into your life, as well.

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

 

 

 

‘Woman with a Blue Pencil’ – Characters in a mystery novel that is being rewritten find themselves in conflict in a world that keeps changing – #bookreview

 

 

 

Woman with a Blue Pencil

Gordon McAlpine

Seventh Street Books – paperback, Kindle

 

What if the characters in a mystery novel are alive in some other universe, and their world keeps changing, because their book, unknown to them, is being edited and rewritten?

And what if one of those characters is trying to solve a murder, but almost everything he knows or remembers, in his version of 1941 Los Angeles, keeps changing or vanishing? What if the people to whom he has been close suddenly cease to exist or no longer know who he is?

Woman with a Blue Pencil is well-written and cleverly structured. It can make you laugh with pleasure when you realize how the story will unfold along two tracks. And you can get engrossed in the actions and motivations of both main characters as their separate tracks begin to merge, and they come into conflict.

This is an intelligent murder mystery with a heart, a message and a poignant, surprise ending. It is set just before and after the Pearl Harbor attack and its aftermath, including the now roundly condemned, racism-driven mass roundup and internment of Japanese-American citizens living on the U.S. West Coast.

Behind the two tracks of story in this tale is an ambitious young Nisei (first-generation Japanese-American) writer who has been trying to get his first novel published. Now, suddenly, he has been relocated to one of the internment camps. And the woman with the blue pencil is his book editor in New York. She keeps trying to help him come up with a new plot that replaces his now-unsalable Japanese protagonist with a Korean-American one, plus create a strong, Western-sounding pseudonym that the author can hide behind once his book goes to market in World War II America.

One word sums up this novel-within-novel: Brilliant.

Si Dunn

 

 

 

 

‘The Secret Life of Anna Blanc’ – This debut murder mystery has everything from comedy to horror – #bookreview

The Secret Life of Anna Blanc

Jennifer Kincheloe

Seventh Street Books  –  paperback, Kindle

 

This feisty debut novel makes the case that it’s tough to be a female detective…especially in 1907.

The Secret Life of Anna Blanc is a clever blending of mystery, murder, and social commentary, along with elements of a comedy of manners and a romantic comedy. There is some horror, too.

The story is set in Los Angeles in the midst of the suffrage movement, when women were seeking the right to vote and trying to win other rights, as well. (Ironically and dishearteningly, some of the early 20th-century women’s struggles remain unresolved more than a century later.)

Anna Blanc is a giddy, naive young woman trying hard to get away from her overprotective father and have some kind of “real” life, a life that does not limit her to being a wife, socialite and perhaps a charity volunteer. But her forceful father keeps very close tabs on her and is trying to marry her off to a suitor who is putting money into Anna’s family’s failing bank.

Using an assumed name and lying that she is married, Anna manages to get hired as a police matron for the Los Angeles Police Department. She is supposed to help work with female prisoners in the male-dominated city jail.

For a while, Anna manages to hide her new employment from her family. But after she discovers that some recent brothel deaths actually have been murders, she soon figures out that the LAPD is not willing, nor caring enough, to investigate them. So, with no detective skills except curiosity and what she has learned while secretly reading crime novels, she decides to investigate the murders herself.

And, in the midst of her inquiries and clue-gathering, she begins to fall in love with someone her father definitely would not approve of—indeed, would disinherit her immediately if he found out.

If you prefer your detective stories classically hard-boiled and served up with stiff drinks of violence and darkness, you might prefer to skip this fine, entertaining debut novel. But if you can handle a murder mystery that ranges in tone from lighthearted to tense to gritty and even eye opening, definitely look into The Secret Life of Anna Blanc.

Si Dunn