Archive for the ‘book review’ Category.

Book Reviews

It’s one of the things I’ve been doing recently.  They have been posted on TheTechStatic:

Sam’s Teach Yourself WPF in 24 Hours (looks good, especially if you want to get into .NET programming)

Make Projects:  Small Form Factor PC’s (this one is dangerous – I want to put everything aside and start working on cool hardware projects)

13 Interesting Online Applications for Seniors (They’re not all really applications, but it’s a good book – especially for Seniors who are already computer savvy)

Ubuntu Kung Fu (I really like this one.  It’s not for the total newbie, but is really useful)

SQL in a Nutshell (very handy if you do any programming with databases)

Web Security Testing Cookbook (Good resource if you already know what you’re doing)

Book Review: Generation MySpace

Generation MySpace, Helping Your Teen Survive Online Adolescence, by Candice M. Kelsey, Marlow & Company, 2007. Available from Amazon, among others.

“Sheesh! Another MySpace thing! Mom, MySpace is really not that big a deal!” –My son, on seeing the book.

And therein is the point of the book. This is not a book for teens; it is an attempt to bridge the generation gap between parents and their children, using MySpace as the point of departure.

The author is a middle school teacher in California who has supplemented her personal experience with extensive research. There are no footnotes, but expert commentary and research is well documented within the text. There is also a “Resources” section at the back of the book, listing sources by chapter, as well as a “Recommended Reading, Surfing, and Viewing” section, also broken down by chapter.

There are few holds barred as the author delves into the current world of teens. In the first chapter the author points out that it’s not all about MySpace, it’s about social networking sites, of which MySpace is the largest. She then proceeds to explain why social networking is so important to teens and how it fits into the overall picture of their lives. In doing so, she exposes the terms and terminology they use and their current cultural context. Although she gives frequent warnings, if you are not prepared for language that would have been offensive in prior generations, you may want to skip this book and try one of the others available.

But the author is not trying to shock as much as to wave red flags. She and many experts say MySpace is not the problem, it is simply a symptom of a larger cultural shift. Kelsey believes, and offers good documentation, that the shift is driven by media and consumerism. With the red flags she also offers advice on dealing with the negative issues surrounding MySpace. The first step, also recommended by other authors of MySpace books, is to visit this part of a teen’s “world” by creating a MySpace account and looking around. There is a guided tour through the process, beginning with Chapter 2, “Pimped Out: Anatomy of a Profile.” The author recommends not going straight to your child’s profile, but using the experience to understand the world of today’s teens by seeing it through their eyes. There is a chapter later in the book devoted to assessing your child’s MySpace involvement, and strategies to use.

Overall, the book is well written and well documented, promoting strategies that are recommended by experts for dealing with teens and MySpace. The book overall also has an alarmist tone, and uses very frank language. For the clueless parent (including the one(s) thinking, “Not MY teen!”), this is probably a good thing. But it may not be the book for every parent. If you want a full picture of the teen world and teens on MySpace, this book should top your list. If you’d rather not know all the gory details, but still want to know how to approach MySpace, consider something like MySpace Unraveled, by Larry Magid and Anne Collier (reviewed here).

Back to the beginning quote: he’s right. I have two teens on MySpace, and for them it isn’t a big deal. It’s their world. I also have a MySpace account, which I set up over a year ago to find out what it was all about. They, and their friends, seemed to think it was awesome that I was in MySpace.

MySpace books: 3 Reviews

MySpace Unraveled: A Parent’s Guide to Teen Social Networking, by Larry Magid and Anne Collier, Peachpit Press, 2006.

This stands out as the best of the three books. It is logically organized and well presented, with color screenshots. The authors present a balanced approach to MySpace, without an alarmist attitude, but with very insightful observations and helpful suggestions, backed by cited research. Their approach is based in the reality of the Web and social networking, addressing the issues one needs to know while guiding the reader through setting up a MySpace account and using MySpace resources.

Sprinkled throughout the book are “Key Parenting Points” which speak directly to parental concerns about MySpace features. Their philosophy on dealing with those parental concerns can be summed up by their statement (on page 12), “There is no substitute for engaged parenting…But that engagement…is less about control than it is about communication.” Hence the book is about informing for constructive parenting rather than controlling a teen’s access to MySpace.

The writing style is informal and easy. The authors speak as parents and professionals who are actively involved with teens, parents, and the Web. Their experience shows. It should probably be noted the authors are the directors of the online resource If you need a book about MySpace, this is the one to get.

MySpace Safety: 51 Tips for Teens and Parents, by Kevin Farnham and Dale Farnham, How-To Primers, 2006.

This book is written (obviously) from a purely safety perspective. While not entirely alarmist, the authors present guidance on using MySpace from the standpoint of minimizing the risk of contact from members with “malicious” intent. Minimizing that risk is not just about minimizing visibility on MySpace, so there are warnings and advice throughout the book as it steps through the process of signing up and using MySpace.

Notably, the authors’ philosophy on parenting teens using MySpace is to get to know their world to be able to advise them appropriately:

“What’s an appropriate response for parents? To get accustomed to the new world…learn about and teach your teens about the risks, and ideally to enjoy participating with them in this new form of interaction that has become normal for [this] generation.”

The book is intended to be a “user’s manual” with “specific warnings about MySpace dangers and specific methods to minimize the risk that comes with having a account.” As the book moves from introduction to setting up an account and modifying account settings, to using MySpace, there are numbered “Safety Tip” sections after discussions of each feature, giving the authors’ recommendations.

While the book is well written, it speaks primarily to the parent reader, occasionally stepping aside to address teens. While the discussion and tips are good, the focus is so narrow it is easy to begin relegating the whole book to paranoia. I think the better choice of books would be MySpace Unraveled. Although in some areas this book has more information, it is more dated, and lacks screenshots. Still, it is worthy of consideration, especially if your main concern is the safety issue on MySpace.

A Parent’s Guide to MySpace, by Laney Dale, DayDream Publishers, 2006.

There’s not a lot to say about this book. It appears to be self-published. It is rife with errors and typos. The tone alternates between patronizing and inflamatory. There is no documentation. Needless to say, even as short as it is, I had a hard time finishing it. Try one of the other two listed above. Forget about this one.

Book Review: GIMP 2 for Photographers

GIMP 2 for Photographers, by Klaus Goelker, Rocky Nook, Inc., 2007, distributed by O’Reilly Media. Also available from Amazon.

This book is a tutorial. As it states right at the beginning of the introduction, it is not a reference guide, but is

designed to facilitate your entry into the world of digital image editing with the help of the GIMP…You will learn the fundamentals of digital editing, familiarize yourself with common image editing tools and their functions, and acquire a working knowledge of the GIMP 2 program.

And that is exactly what it does. The tutorial style is almost like being in a classroom. The steps are explained, then set out in detail, starting with pixels, color, resolution, and file formats. Towards the end of the book there is less explanation, as the exercises build on what has already been learned and focus on new ways to use the tools.

This really is not a beginner book. It assumes a certain amount of knowledge about computers, cameras and scanners. But you don’t have to be an expert in any of those areas. In fact, although the book discusses importing RAW formats and scanning images, the actual editing exercises are done with images included on the CD which comes with the book. Also included on the CD is the entire book in PDF format, copies of what the exercise images should look like after the editing exercises, the GIMP program for Windows, Mac OSX, and Linux (with source files), plugins for the program, and a copy of Irfanview, a free image viewer and conversion tool (for Windows).

Although intended for all formats, the book presents material from a Windows-centric perspective. I worked through the exercises on a Mac, however, and had no problems, thanks to the GIMP having virtually the same interface across platforms.

As seems to be the case with all books, this one is not without a few flaws. There were many typos, although few of them really serious. It would be better if there was an errata page (having marked them all in the book, I could probably put up one myself at this point). Some of the tools could use more explanation. I wish the beautiful, color screenshots were bigger. But my biggest surprise was the book itself: I don’t think I’ve ever had a cover on a brand new book start separating from the book after only one week.

I have been using the GIMP for a couple years already, but there was a lot in the book that was new for me. In fact, I wish I’d read the book a few weeks earlier: it would have saved me a lot of time on a Christmas project! Despite the flaws, and even with the defective cover, I’d recommend it. It will give you more than a working knowledge of the GIMP.

Book Review: CSS Cookbook, 2nd Edition

CSS Cookbook, Second Edition, by Christopher Schmitt, O’Reilly Media, 2006.

First things first. You should have some experience with Cascading Style Sheets before diving into this book. It will not teach you CSS, but you will learn some really nifty shortcuts and tricks using CSS. The book assumes its readers “possess some web design or development experience either as a hobbyist, student, or professional.” Take the assumption seriously. But even if you’re an expert at CSS, don’t overlook the book. It should make a handy resource, especially in terms of interoperability.

For those of you who are weak or rusty with CSS, the first chapter provides a good refresher. Go lightly through it, however, since there are some errata which can leave you scratching your head. Most of the errata in the rest of the book is obvious and doesn’t detract from the content, although the typos can be a bit annoying.

The book is structured in a problem-solution format, categorized by type. For instance, “Creating a Hanging Indent,” a handy technique to know, is in the Web Typography section (Chapter 2). It begins with a statement of the problem, “You want to create a hanging indent,” offers a solution (in this case, pretty brief), then goes into a lengthy discussion of the problems, workarounds and related issues (such as, in this case, paired hanging indents). The “problems” range from fairly simple and obvious to complex, using javascript. I should probably note that there is very little explanation of the javascript when it is included in solutions or discussions. The assumption is that you already have some knowledge about it. I should probably also note that when javascript is included, there are instructions on where to obtain the needed code, and how to include it.

Many of the solutions also include using images. Again, there is the assumption you know how to create or modify the image needed. Like the solutions using javascript, the instructions typically tell you where to get the needed image. But some, like the “Rounding Corners” techniques, tell you to create a rounded corners design, then tell you how to modify it for the solution.

On the issue of cross-browser compatibility, there is a very handy section (Chapter 11) on Hacks, Workarounds, and Troubleshooting, and a section in the index with tables showing the implementation of CSS elements in different platforms and browsers (also available from O’Reilly Media as a pdf file). But compatibility issues, if there are any, are also dealt with in each problem-solution set. IE 7 is also included in the discussions.

On the whole, except for the typos and errata (which, unfortunately, were not listed on O’Reilly’s site at the time of this writing), this is a good, solid reference book. I like the discussion part of the solutions, which not only explain the how and why, but often give alternatives and discuss issues which impact implementing the solution (such as validation, and compatibility). While not a book to start out with, it is definitely a book to expand your knowledge and skills.

Book Review: Learning Javascript

Learning Javascript, by Shelley Powers, O’Reilly, 2006.

This is not a book for beginners. Let me repeat: this is not a book for beginners. Although the Preface states, “Readers of this book should be familiar with web page technology, including CSS and HTML/XHTML … [p]revious programming experience isn’t required, though some sections may require extra review if you have no previous exposure to programming,” there is a strong assumption from the start that the reader at least (a) has some experience with current programming concepts and practices, (b) has some experience with web page coding and practices, or (c) has a lot of time to learn (a) and (b) while working through the book. That said, however, this really is an excellent resource.

I fall into categories (a) and (b) above, but I’m rusty when it comes to javascript, and wanted something of a refresher. Instead, the book had the effect of dropping me into a working laboratory where everything, though nicely explained, remained confusing for quite a way into the book. But by the time the author got to the complex stuff, it all made sense and fell together perfectly, rather like finally understanding how all the tools in that laboratory make everything work so smoothly.

The book seems fast paced, and often left me wishing there were more detailed explanations of some of the examples. But the concepts and examples are interwoven, so just working through the book brought some understanding. The end of each chapter has review questions, with the answers at the end of the book, for those who find that helpful. But what impressed me was that the errata sheet is already available at O’Reilly. There are a few errata, and they’ll be handy to know if you’re trying the examples given in the book. Additional resources are also sprinkled throughout the book which all appear to still be working.

The author’s practical bias comes through very strongly in the book. In the introduction, and throughout the book, there are frequent “best practices.” Paramount to her philosophy of best practices is the admonition, “whatever JavaScript functionality you create, it must not come between your site and your site’s visitors.” Consequently, she often recommends solutions other than javascript to ensure accessibility by all types of browsers and users. There are also good discussions of the issues surrounding using javascript, especially the cross platform issues and what is on the horizon. Because of the browser compatibility issues, the author covers work-arounds each step of the way, with different options and a discussion of what works best and why.

If book titles are supposed to be descriptive of the content, I’m not so sure “Learning Javascript” is the best title for this book, although it fits well if one thinks of it as learning another programming language. You’ll find this book a lot more helpful if your familiarity with web technology includes using CSS and XHTML, or if you have some experience with another programming language.

Book Review: Moving to Ubuntu Linux

Moving to Ubuntu Linux, by Marcel Gagné. Addison-Wesley, 2006. Available from Amazon.

This book is really well done. Of the Ubuntu books I’ve seen so far, this is the one I gave to my dad for the Ubuntu we helped him install at the InstallFest. The screenshots are well done (that is, relevant and readable), the writing style is friendly and informal, and there is good depth given to the topics covered. The author states in the beginning: “anyone who is familiar with a computer can learn to use Linux,” and from that perspective, he does a very good job making Ubuntu familiar.

He begins with a detailed screen by screen install, including directions on resizing a windows partition and defragging a hard drive. The rest of the first half of the book then introduces the reader/user to customizing the desktop, navigating files, making an Internet connection, setting up printers, updating, and installing new software. The section on wireless networking was particularly helpful. Although the book uses the default Gnome desktop interface, it includes instructions on downloading and installing the KDE desktop and packages as well.

The second half of the book is devoted to some of the programs available. The coverage seems rather quick, but is substantial enough to get one started. I was particularly impressed with the coverage of the suite, which included creating a database and using it in Write to create address labels. There was quite a bit of discussion in the Music chapter, and a plethora of games were briefly introduced.

One of the nicest features are the “Shell Out” notes throughout the book, which give text commands to use in the shell (terminal). There’s a complete chapter at the back of the book which teaches all the basics of using the terminal, but the “Shell Out” notes are a nice way to get new Linux users comfortable using the shell. Keyboard shortcuts are also frequent. In fact, sometimes more frequent than instructions on where to find the actual command in the menus.

The book is not without a few problems, however. I ran across a few typos, and was left hanging in the Base chapter where the author promised to come back to the option of creating a form but never did. Also, although there is a live DVD included with the book, the computer I’m using does not have a DVD drive. Fortunately, I had a few CD’s left over from the InstallFest. Despite these minor issues, I’d recommend the book. It’s one of the best I’ve seen so far.

Book Review: The Official Ubuntu Book

The Official Ubuntu Book, by Benjamin Mako Hill and Jono Bacon, Corey Burger, Jonathan Jesse, Ivan Krstic. Prentice Hall, 2006.  Available from Safari/O’Reilly and Amazon.

This is a deceptive book. It looks “official” (with Ubuntu colors and people on the cover), Chapter One sounds “official” (reads almost like a catechism), and it’s got an “official” stamp of approval (the foreward) from Mark Shuttleworth, the man behind the Ubuntu project. Don’t be fooled, however. The meat of this book is anything but dry, official-sounding, stuff.

If you do start at the beginning of the book (as I did), you will be pleasantly surprised when you get to Chapter Two. The writing style changes abruptly to a very readable, conversant style, sprinkled with a dry wit (“Although you don’t really need to know what these folders do … for your pleasure, we present the Linux folder hit list …”). The intended audience seems to be primarily computer users who are unfamiliar with Linux, or at least unfamiliar with Ubuntu. It is not the book I’d hand to a new computer user, but the authors do a good job speaking to computer users of varying levels who are reluctant to venture into the “unknown” world of Linux.

There are brief introductions to some of the common applications (Firefox browser, Writer, Evolution E-mail and Calendar, the GIMP, Gaim, and Ekiga VOIP), and brief mentions of many other applications, like IRC, games, and CD software. I especially like their example using the GIMP (short and quick, but really sweet). The Advanced Usage and Managing Ubuntu section gets a little confusing in places. For example, some of the screenshots don’t seem to match the text, and it leaves the reader hanging in the Add/Remove programs section. Also, while it has very good details on printing setup, there is not much on network printing.

Surprisingly, there is a separate chapter for Server installation. People like me probably shouldn’t read stuff like that. Their words, “Let the mischief begin!” was prefaced with:

The aim of this chapter is … not to teach you how to be a system administrator — we could easily fill a dozen books attempting to do that — but to give you a quick crash course.

So I delved in, and found it … mostly helpful, at least not harmful. Probably useful for newbie system administrators; the rest of us could safely skip the chapter and go straight to the “Support and Typical Problems,” which is much more useful. The issues range from the simple and obvious (“How do I restore something I deleted in the file manager?”) to the esoteric (“How do I make Ubuntu bread?”). Finally, there is a separate section on installing and using Kubuntu.

There is an assumption that you will install Ubuntu using the DVD included, which has several variations to choose from, including one for Apple Macintosh. Of course, if you don’t have a DVD drive, or if you are looking for some of the Ubuntu alternatives, like Xubuntu or Edubuntu, you’ll have to visit the Ubuntu site. Nevertheless, this book stands solidly as an excellent resource for learning and using Ubuntu. There’s even the bonus background stuff in Chapter 1!

Book Review: Ubuntu Linux for Non-Geeks

Ubuntu Linux for Non-Geeks: A Pain-Free, Project-Based, Get-Things-Done Guidebook, by Rickford Grant. No Starch Press, 2006. Also available from O’Reilly and Amazon.

Rickford Grant is not new to books for novice Linux users (see Linux Made Easy and Linux For Non-Geeks). This is the first one I’ve read, however. My motive here is to find Linux distros that are truly for Linux novices, and that also have books available for them. There is also the hope (perhaps vain) that there is a book and distro for the novice computer user. This book is not for the novice computer user. As Grant states in the introduction:

If you are familiar with computers, but unfamiliar with Linux, or somewhat familiar with Linux but not with Ubuntu, you are essentially the readere for whom I have written this book.

To that end, Grant achieves his goal. Some may take issue with the non-geek part of the title, however.

As the title states, this is a project-based guide. The book’s structure is to identify and explain features (or software) and move on to a hands-on exercise (project) using those features. Most of the projects are both helpful and practical (for example, the first project is addiing a force quit button to the panel). The writing style is informal and chatty, rather like a tutor sitting beside you. He promises to make it fun, and does a pretty good job, especially with sections like the one on Easter Eggs.

The coverage is definitely not for non-geeks. He spends quite a bit of time on games, iPods, music, downloads and customization, while barely mentioning GnuCash, Scribus and the suite of tools. But he did say he would make it fun, and the geeky things are a lot more fun than the productivity things. However, he also has sections on Linux security (“Basically, if it makes you feel safer to install some protection, go ahead”), printers and scanners, fonts, and multi-lingual features.

Grant, as all Linux guidebook writers seem to be, is upfront and honest about Linux and its shortcomings, but is upbeat and optimistic. He also gives workarounds with frank assessments of their likely effectiveness or ease of use. To that end, most of his projects involve downloading and installing a program that is not included in the Ubuntu install disk. In fact, if you follow the projects, you’ll get a lot of practice finding and installing packages, both from the gui and command line, which is not necessarily a bad thing. He also progresses from fairly simple steps at the beginning of the book, to an assumption the reader has more than a basic knowledge of Linux. This is definitely not a book to jump around in unless you’re one of those already familiar with Linux.

While I think this is a good book that achieves its stated goals, I do have some beefs. One of the biggest issues in computing access today is wireless. But the section on networking, including wireless, is weak. First, although he uses a lot of screenshots throughout the book (albeit too small to be of much use), there is a dearth of useful screenshots in the wireless section. Second, he mentions the outdated WEP security, but says nothing about WPA, which is not new technology any more. Third, there is the assumption that a wireless card will just be recognized, without a problem. Then there are times (thankfully infrequent) the information he’s giving is downright wrong. For instance, in the section on network browsing, he states, “In case you’re wondering, the smb at the head of that path means Samba…” Finally, although it may be early in the game here, the link listed for updates to links and software given in the book is blank.

A good book? Yes, especially for geek wannabes. But not the book for a total newbie, and not really the book for non-geeks. And the experienced Linux users probably already know it’s not the book for them. Despite my beefs, I did enjoy the book, and found it useful, despite it’s weaknesses.

Book Review: Test Driving Linux

Test Driving Linux: From Windows to Linux in 60 Seconds, by David Brickner. O’Reilly Media, Inc., 2005. Available from Amazon and O’Reilly.

This is definitely the book to start with if you are new to Linux. It comes with a live CD: Move, a version of Mandrake Linux that runs entirely from the CD, with no installation required. It is written in a personable, informal style which makes it not only interesting but often fun to read.

The intended audience is “Windows users who have heard of Linux and want to find out what all the fuss is about without committing a lot of time or hard-drive space,” and assumes no prior knowledge of Linux. But not wanting to exclude people like me, the book also claims it “can turn existing linux users into more effective Linux users.” But it really is for people who are currently using Windows, at whatever level. There are many references to Windows features and layouts for comparison. There are also many references to Windows problems as a reason to switch to Linux. The author is an unabashed Linux apologist.

I really like the organization of the book. It starts with the obligatory introduction to Linux, but in this case the beginning introduction is brief. Introduction is what the whole book is about, so “introductory” explanations and comments are throughout the book. The first chapter goes through starting up the CD, using the KDE desktop, and a “typical” application (KWrite). Chapter Two goes into web surfing, and Chapter Three covers file management. While there is a chapter at the back with “Solutions to Common Problems,” a lot of what you’ll encounter is included in the main material. For example, after the CD loaded, my screen went blank. Sure enough, there in the last paragraph of the booting section, I found, “One minor problem I have found on a few computers is that the screen will go blank and won’t come back up. If this happens, just press any key on the keyboard and the screen should come back up.” Yep, that worked. Oddly enough, the section on “Customizing the Desktop,” with all the great configuration details and tips, is stuck in between the chapters on applications. I suppose it fits there if one thinks of the chapters progressing along the virtual path most would take in trying out a new operating system.

Brickner is honest, but optimistic, about shortcomings in Linux, such as games and video. An obvious gamer himself, he devotes a lot of space to discussing the games that are available, and resources for finding them. He spends a lot less time on video, which is very briefly covered in the audio section. He also does not ignore other common programs and features available with Linux that are not on the CD, and even offers frank assessments of Linux distros to install after trying out the Move CD.

The application programs covered are the KDE suite of e-mail, organizer and Instant Messaging, Open Office Write and Calc, the GIMP, and GnuCash. Although very little time is spent on the GIMP, the necessary basics are covered: scaling, resizing, and cropping. It’s just enough to get one started. He includes a detailed explanation of how to remove red-eye, but only succeeds in making it look harder than it needs to be. A lot more space is given to the other programs, especially GnuCash. Brickner gives a great explanation of how double-entry accounting works by way of explaining how to use GnuCash.

There are plenty of screenshots. Some of the screenshot images produced text that was too small to be of much use, but I found that much of the text generally didn’t need the screenshots anyway. The only problem I had was trying to get an internet connection on one of the computers I tried it out on. I couldn’t figure out how to get a working connection over the local netwok, and the book gave no clues.

Despite the shortcomings, which are minor, this is an excellent book. It is the book to give (or recommend) to the skeptic or clueless person who asks what Linux is. It presents Linux as a friendly, usable alternative, with a manual that is anything but dry. We need more books like this.