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Submission + - The Information Diet (

stoolpigeon writes: "It is a well known fact that the United States has an obesity problem. There are numerous causes that ultimately lead to an imbalance in the ratio between the number of calories taken in to the number of calories burned. The size of the American diet industry is another good indicator of how widespread the problem has become. Clay Johnson believes that the issues the U.S. has with food, have become mirrored in how we consume information.

Understanding, and buying into, this metaphor of information obesity is key to “The Information Diet.” Johnson is aware of this and the text never wanders far from the comparisons. He begins with an extensive telling of the physical obesity issue that plagues the United States and then always frames the rest of his work in nutritional/fitness terms. A few chapters are “Welcome to Information Obesity”, “The Symptons of Information Obesity”, “Attentions Fitness” and “How to Consume.” Readers who don’t buy into the parallels are going to have a really hard time with the book. The comparison and prescriptions for behavior never wander far from the picture and so it’s not something one can brush off early on and then ignore for the rest of the book. I think that Johnson is right, so I dug into the book, eager to see what he recommended.

I don’t think that anyone would argue about the physical obesity problem. I think what readers may be skeptical about is this idea of information obesity. The premise that Johnson puts forward is that we have access to more information than ever before, much in the same way that developed nations have more food available than ever before. (I will let the reader continue to draw the parallels — this example should be enough to figure it out.) While we have more information than ever before, not all information is equal. Some information is good for us and some is not. Another problem is that we tend to seek certain kinds of information that can give us a skewed and inaccurate view of the world we live in. People have access to more information yet they become more ignorant.

Johnson is an activist. Much of his life has been about affecting change. He is very upfront about this and the book contains a large amount of biographical information. Of course this is because he must. Johnson is laying out an argument for digging past the fluff, the bias and finding ways to be informed by facts. But he has his own built in bias and internal spin that he must counter even as he encourages the reader to do the same. I think that for the most part he has managed to do this well, not necessarily by being completely objective but by being transparent. Some of his examples felt a little weak to me, but this is because I had such a different approach to the event, topic or people that he chose as examples. I think his underlying observations were correct, and his sharing freely about his background and default positions helped me to reconcile his main point with my reservations about the specific examples.

The first six chapters are part of the introduction section and lay out Johnson’s case for the information obesity problem. The next four chapters are the actual “Information Diet”. Here Johnson moves from describing the problem to full on advocacy. Always striving for objectivity Johnson is always quick to describe what science is out there to give light to his position. The problem is that there just isn’t much of it out there. This means that the diet itself is a mix of what has seemed to work well for Johnson himself and some broad recommendations. This may be frustrating to anyone who is looking for hard and fast direction. It’s not that Johnson doesn’t give concrete suggestions, it’s just that he can’t claim any assurance that they will work for anyone but himself. That said, I think there is a good chance that many of his ideas about how we spend our time taking in information, how we find sources and tools as well as attitudes that may help seem to be good. I think that anyone who moves from being unaware of the issue to being intentional in how they take in information is better off by that change alone.

Working through this process of finding the “diet” that works for someone is something they may want to do with others. With this in mind, and I think reflecting Johnson’s bent as an activist, there is an Information Diet web site with a blog, resources and information on things like events. It is tied into some social tools and so one is able to interact with other information dieters.

Unfortunately this site is at once a marketing tool for the book (hoped ‘movement’ I guess) and this reflects the constant tension that exists in the fact that Johnson is at once pushing for social change and seeking to profit at the same time. He is constantly in danger, while writing and in the external resources for the book, of violating the principles he is endorsing. A friend recently told me, “David Benatar, author of "Better Never to Have Been: The Harm of Coming into Existence," which argues against procreation, dedicates this book to his parents.” It’s that appearance of contradiction that pops up here as well. I’m told to filter out more noise, seek out better information and twitter and if I like the idea here are the buttons to let the world know on Facebook, Twitter, g+ or email. It’s not that this can’t all be reconciled, it is just jarring. This is something that will drive skeptics nuts and I dinged my rating of the book for it, though I think the good outweighs the bad in this regard. Just because the site exists, I don’t think that invalidates the thought and I don’t have to go there. I feel I’ve benefited from the book alone.

The book is squarely aimed at an American audience. That’s pretty clear from the get-go. Much of Johnson’s life has been involved in American politics, the obesity metaphor works well for an American audience and so it makes sense that this would be the scope of the work. I think that is unfortunate because I believe there is a broader application for his ideas with regard to how information is processed and the explosion in the amount of information available. A person who is not an American could read the book and I am sure find some good things to take away but understanding many of the stories and examples would be difficult without some knowledge and understanding of American culture and recent history.

The third section of the book, “Social Obesity”, Johnson returns to his enumeration of the ills caused by information obesity. The people who lose out due to poor information habits are not just the individuals but the society as a whole. Johnson invites readers to become a part of a “Vast Rational Conspiracy.” I believe he is genuine in this call to action and that is what allows me to forgive some of the efforts around the book that look more self-serving. I believe he is truly trying to fuel a fundamental shift in discourse and knowledge in the United States. This also causes me to be more sympathetic about the geographical focus, though I think it is only fair that readers from other countries be warned. Johnson has created a call to action and he’s starting with his home. I am sure he would love to see it spread and move beyond the borders of his native country. The skeptic would again see this happiness as a function of increased personal gain. I’m a little more optimistic, or maybe just a sucker.

This last section is the shortest. It includes a note to programmers that ought to at least be a bit of an ego boost, as they learn they are the new “scribes” of our age. Or having, as Johnson puts it, “...a better ability to figure out the world than anybody else.” The appendix with further reading has some great pointers to good reading on-line and in books.

I’ve rated “The Information Diet” 8 of 10 because I think Johnson at moments loses the battle to not engage in the kind of objectivity that he advocates and because the book has such a regionally focused audience. That said, it has changed my behavior and I think that it has a positive place. In fact I’ve become an advocate for many of the ideas, even when I don’t recommend the book itself. I recently ran into a barrage of emails from various co-workers advocating that we “turn off technology” because it is too distracting from real life. I found this to be rather annoying because there are always distractions and tech is also important and a force for better lives. The ideas in “The Information Diet” have given me options to offer people that let them gain control of the information sources in their life rather than giving up and just shutting them all off.

Will the “The Information Diet” have a great impact over time? I am really not sure. I think that it is definitely a precursor of things to come. Just by being published it will encourage others to copy it and I think we will see the parallel to physical diet and eating continue. But will Johnson finally achieve his goal of making the world a better place? Only time will tell, but I think it is a noble effort."


Submission + - HTML5 Developer's Cookbook (

stoolpigeon writes: "HTML5 is the latest version of HTML. In fact it is still under development. But HTML5 brings so many highly desired capabilities that browsers have begun to implement it and many projects already take advantage of it. Often an HTML5 project employees more technology than just HTML and the label has come to include the use of CSS3 and JavaScript as well. There are a number of resources out there to help one use HTML5 and recently I’ve been using the “HTML5 Developer’s Cookbook” by Chuck Hudson and Tom Leadbetter.

I like the cookbook format myself in situations like this. I’m already familiar with HTML but I want to learn about the new features that exist in HTML5. This means I’m not nearly as interested in explanations, especially in the basics, as I am in getting a big diff on the languages with lots of examples and only as much explanation as necessary. Though the trick for authors is to walk the fine line between too much explanation and not enough. If they get too wordy, it really isn’t a cook book any more. Not enough explanation and it can become difficult to understand all the issues that come to bear with an example. This is especially true when dealing with something that is new and still in development.

“HTM5 Developer’s Cookbook” walks this line well. Hudson and Leadbetter have organized the recipes into various categories and further labeled them with a level of difficulty. Recipes are marked as beginner, intermediate and advanced. I found the labels helpful because while I’ve mucked about with HTML and its corresponding tech, I felt more comfortable easing in on the beginner end first. If I were working with someone who was a true beginner to working with any kind of development, I would probably not start them off with a cook-book. I think that is especially the case here because so much of HTML is not covered. This is not an exhaustive resource on HTML but rather a set of explanations and examples on what is new or different in this latest version of HTML.

The book itself begins with a quick review of how we got to where we are, a bit of HTML history. The chapters follow this pattern, starting with some history where needed and an explanation of the new technology driving the examples that are to follow. Then there are the recipes themselves, followed up by any helpful information and a summary. There’s more prose than I’ve seen in many other cook-books but in this case I didn’t see it as a negative. The authors assume that readers are familiar with the old approach and they need to explain how the new approach is different. In some cases tags have changed meaning, this needs to be spelled out.

Hudson and Leadbetter deal with handling how various browsers support (or don’t) the various aspects of HTML5 that they highlight. This is especially important as everything is still in flux. Though if past history is any indicator, even if the spec were completely nailed down, there would still be differences between browsers. This does bring up an important question though. This book has a definite shelf life. As HTML5 continues to develop there are many parts that may become inaccurate. This is true of most tech books, but doubly so in this case. If someone is looking for a timeless tome on the topic, this wouldn’t be it. In my case, it’s a timely resource to get up to speed quickly, from a single source that I trust. I can search the web and find a mixed bag or turn to this one spot to get quickly up to speed.

I had an electronic version of the book made available from the publisher for this review. I’ve found that format to be very helpful in this case. It keeps me from feeling at all guilty about buying a book with such a narrow window of usefulness. I also really enjoy being able to jump straight to recipes. There is a list of just the recipes at the end of the book that are linked directly to each that make this especially easy. I’m rapidly moving away from dead tree books, and I didn’t feel any reason here to miss that format. (On a side note, I got the page count above from Amazon. I wonder what metric we’ll be using to judge book size in the future? Word count?)

All of the chapter titles and recipes are available on line. From new structural elements to integrating with devices, there are plenty of practical and useful examples. I couldn’t find a clear statement in the text of the book on readers being given the freedom to use the recipes directly in code. This surprised me so I checked with the publisher and they told me that all code is free to use. Maybe that is not necessary here because everything shown is just an example of following the specification, but given the current climate with regards to intellectual property I wanted to be sure.

I’ve rated the book 9 out of 10 due to the fact that I think the authors do a great job of not wasting my time but instead quickly deliver what I need. If you want to get a feel for what is up with HTML5 yourself, I recommend this as a great option. If you are interested in a more comprehensive review of HTML in general or how to create web pages, I would find something more suited to providing an introduction to web programming."

Book Reviews

Submission + - SPAM: Python Essential Reference 4th ed.

stoolpigeon writes: "It has been ten years since David Beazley wrote the first edition of Python Essential Reference. The book has proven itself as a valuable resource to Python developers and has been kept current over those ten years, with the fourth edition coming at an interesting time for Python. Python 3 was a major release that broke backwards compatibility. Python 3 has been around for a year now. That said, the current download page at the official Python site states, "If you don't know which version to use, start with Python 2.6.4; more existing third party software is compatible with Python 2 than Python 3 right now." Beazley in keeping with the pragmatic roots of a reference that sticks to what is 'essential' has removed the coverage on features from 2 that were removed from 3. At the same time, the primary focus for new features that came with 3 is limited to those that have been back-ported to 2. This approach, born out of a desire to keep the reference relevant, provides a blended approach that is above all else practical.

The end result of that choice is a reference document consisting of those parts of Python that are shared between versions 2 and 3. This is a significant portion of the language and I think this approach is really what will give this reference more traction than many of the other guides that focus purely on 3. I think that those are valuable and over time the balance will shift but as of right now, for a little while to come, this book takes the most realistic approach. That feels very fuzzy, but I have no idea how long it will be until Python 3 truly is the dominant version and Python 2 is truly put to bed.

If I had to guess how Beazley's Python Essential Reference has held in there over the years, the key would be that there is a lot of what a developer needs and very little of what she doesn't need. There is a twenty-four page tutorial introduction, but this is not a guide on how to program or how to use Python for beginners. An experienced programmer could probably use this reference to shift to Python as a new language, but someone completely new to writing code would probably not want to start here. A quick look at the table of contents shows that an explanation of the language itself is covered in under 200 pages. Extending and embedding Python also get their own section, but close to 400 pages is given to the Python library.

An inevitable question is what one will gain with this reference over the online documentation. A good example to see how things vary is to look at chapter nineteen, Operating System Services and the online documentation for Generic Operating System Services. The online documentation is very thorough, and covers each piece of the library starting with os and io, building from there. While every facet is documented much of it is rather brief. For example section 16.2.3. Raw File I/O is a very straightforward listing of the very low level functionality available via io.FileIO. In contrast, looking at the 3.1.1 Docs for Raw IO shows that parameters for FileIO changed with that version. Looking to the documentation for 2.7a1 Raw File I/O shows that these changes are being back-ported to Python 2.

In Python Essential Reference none of this hunting down changes and checking to see if they are coming to 2 are necessary. Beazley shows them in his documentation. This is the strength of his choice on how to handle these types of situations. On top of that, Beazley provides more than the online documents by including four paragraphs of additional information on Raw I/O and when its use is appropriate. This added content is probably available googling around for it, but then I have to take the time to check dates on posts to see if things are still current and in general just hope that things are accurate. I have never read a technical book that was completely error free, and there are probably at the very least some typos in Python Essential Reference, though I haven't caught any of them on my read through or use of the book yet. But the important thing is that I don't expect the book to be perfect, rather I value it for being a known quantity. I am aware of just when the material was compiled, who put it together and I have it all in one place.errno symbols is not exhaustive and oddly enough is not ordered alphabetically. Beazley provides two lists for errno symbols. They are provided in alphabetical order, have a description and are grouped as POSIX error codes and Windows error codes. A quick glance at these tables in a skimming of the book might lead one to believe that this is just a simple quick grab from already available sources, but that isn't the case. There is real value added even here.

The index is solid. It would seem that one should be able to take this for granted with a technical reference but I've seen some sad exceptions. Between the thorough index and the detailed table of contents I've never had to spend more than a few seconds looking for what I need. This is the result of those tools as well as the fact that this is not an exhaustive reference. After initially reading through the book for this review, I've taken some time just to use it day to day, as I doubt many will be reading it from front to back. I don't use Python professionally. I'm purely a hobbyist when it comes to programming, but I've found that if I want to get the most out of the time I do have to play with personal projects, I want this book close. I'm not cranking out code that fast to begin with and so I need all the help I can get. I've found that Beazley seems to have hit that sweet spot where he gives enough information to get me where I need to be without bogging down in too many details or the things that I just don't need to know. I imagine this proper balance of information is due to Beazley's extensive experience with Python and that of Noah Gift the technical editor for the book.

I've mentioned repeatedly that I approve of how the shift between Python 2 and 3 has been handled. Beazley hasn't completely integrated everything and left some of the unique new features of 3 out in the cold. There is an appendix that deals specifically with Python 3. It is short but does have some value. New features, common pitfalls for those making the move from 2 to 3 and how to run both at the same time in a single environment are covered. This is helpful and keeps my desk a little neater, though I think if I were going to be spending extensive time working with Python 3 then I would probably want to have another reference on hand.

If you are a week-end hacker like me, or someone that is writing Python on the clock, I think that this compact reference is very useful. I don't have any trouble running across huge technical books that do come in handy for any project that requires something heavy. I also see a lot of little books that seem to be quickly produced summaries of what is already out there, spending most of their short content on fluff. Every so often though, someone hits that sweet spot of concise usefulness. Beazley did this with Python Essential Reference and this new edition continues that history in strong fashion."

Link to Original Source
Book Reviews

Submission + - SPAM: Mobile Design and Development

stoolpigeon writes: "It is pretty obvious to anyone paying attention that the growing prevalence of mobile technologies is something that cannot be ignored. A special report in the Economist on telecoms in emerging markets wrapped up with the prediction, " current rates of growth it seems likely that within five years, and certainly within ten, everyone in the world who wants a mobile phone will probably have one. 3G networks capable of broadband speeds will be widespread even in developing countries, and even faster 4G networks will be spreading rapidly in some places." It does not appear that it will be long before Smart Phones are just normal phones and anyone who wants to be, will be connected to a world wide mobile network. Any business or developer that wants to reach groups of significant size really needs to be prepared via mobile platforms. Brian Fling has been helping others operate in this space for close to a decade and is very familiar with the lay of the land. He sees the opportunities and has experienced the pitfalls and frustrations as well. His new book, Mobile Design and Development brings some of that experience and knowledge to the mobile neophyte, looking for an overview of just how to get in the game.

Mobile Design and Development is not a long book and doesn't delve deeply into the specifics of any one platform or technology. This is an overview that would be of value to anyone that will be managing a project being built for mobile, or for technical folks that are new to mobile. This will give the manager and leader an appreciation for the challenges and good guidance on realistic scope. For the person actually implementing the technology there is quite a bit of good information here that will be of value on the front end for making choices in direction and platform. There is also a section on building iPhone web apps ( applicable to any phone with similar capabilities running a WebKit based browser ). But this is not primarily a 'how to code' or reference book for any one mobile technology. This isn't going to be the only resource a developer will want but could prove invaluable in saving time and effort wandering in what can be a rather complicated set of choices. The book even deals with making money on mobile platforms and so Fling very succinctly gives great coverage to most all that one would need to get up and running. I would think the audience that would get the most from Mobile Design and Development is the small team or individual that want to take a stab at the mobile market and have a high degree of flexibility and freedom. This book would be an invaluable resource in sorting through all the possibilities. Whereas someone working in a large corporation that wont give them the freedom to choose their platform, or someone who has already made all their platform choices would probably do well just to dig into something more specific to their chosen technology. That said, if the choice was arbitrary and if isn't too late to change, working through the first half of this book may give one solid reason to reconsider.

In his preface Fling states that he has three principles that he would like to impart.
  • You need to know the different facets of the mobile medium.
  • You need to know how to leverage mobile technologies to address context.
  • You need to know how to leverage the right mobile technology for the need.

The book is in two sections, the first being an overview of just all what falls under the "mobile" umbrella and provides a few ways of organizing those pieces. It works to provide information applicable to the first two principles. The second section of the book focuses on the third principle and goes mostly deeply into mobile web applications, which Fling sees as the answer to the platform and carrier fragmentation present in other solutions. The question of web apps vs Native apps has created some interesting discussion and Fling falls into the 'leaning towards web apps' camp, though he is pragmatic throughout this book.

That pragmatism is extremely attractive and a large part of what makes this book worthwhile. It is obvious while reading that Fling doesn't just talk about how things should be done, but he follows his own advice in his writing and presents what he believes will make for the best solutions. If there is a place where idealism will lead to the quick and ugly death of an idea it would be the mobile space. Compromise isn't just something that may make sense at times, it is often forced right into the platform by carriers or others. Fling doesn't back away from this and acknowledges when there are multiple routes, none standing out as ideal. He is very up front in sections where his technical reviewers had other opinions and presenting other options that they felt might be better. Fling tries to give succinct coverage to what he sees as the better possible options and leaves the choices to the reader, now armed with enough information to dig deeper.

Fling's clarity and up front appraisal of the considerations in the mobile space lead to him describing one of the most prominent limitations of his own book. Besides the obvious that it can't go into great depth on every mobile technology there is the fact that this information has a limited shelf life. In the fifth chapter, Developing a Mobile Strategy, Fling gives a set of seven rules that he believes should be followed in the process of creating a strategy. The second rule is, Believe What You See, Not What You Read and the following chapter contains the admonition, "Don't trust any report, fact, or figure that is more than a year or two old. It is most likely wrong. For example, the majority of assumptions about mobile development pre-iPhone are no longer applicable." According to Fling, barring a revision this book has a shelf life of roughly a year or two. After that one should really be looking to more recent resources. On the other hand, anyone even thinking about jumping into the fray, should be reading this right now.

This limitation is the only thing that causes me to not rate the book as a 'classic' and it is not really the fault of the author. It is just a reflection of the rapid rate of change taking place in the world it describes. My only other problem with the book is small, though at times a bit annoying. The book is black and white, without any color illustrations. This in itself isn't a problem but the shades chosen for pie charts in more than one place are not sufficiently different to tell where one edge stops and another starts. Fling describes the charts, they are never floating alone without text that addresses them, so the reader doesn't lose information, just the opportunity to see it displayed in a visual format. I'm not a person with great visual design skills, so if I noticed I'm sure others involved in the production of the book have as well and hopefully later printings corrected this issue.

The first section, as I've described, is a high level overview of the mobile world. This covers what Fling thinks of as all the layers of the mobile ecosystem. This means everything from carriers to hardware manufacturers to operating systems and more. I've spent quite a bit of time over the last year reading up on much of what Fling covers here, but there were still pieces of new information that I found. Fling takes a global view and doesn't lean towards the situation as it is presented in any single geographical area. He is also dealing with all types of phones and platforms. While he obviously spends a lot of time, especially in the second section, dealing with more capable smart phones, he is still dealing throughout the book with less capable devices and systems. This is where Fling's experience really shines. He has navigated what it means to try and develop for less capable phones, the realistic challenges one faces trying to get onto more hardware and more networks. It is at times daunting, but I for one would rather walk into something knowing the reality rather than being uninformed.

Fling hits all the highlights from what is available to suggestions on the whole life cycle of a mobile product including prototyping, testing and adapting to various types of phones and platforms. The second section, dealing with more specifics on putting together a Web App will throw a bone to the developer that wants to see some code. While it is mostly mark-up Fling does spend time dealing with some specifics of implementing a WebKit compatible solution. He states that this will work on a few modern phones, though a few subsections do carry warnings that they are iPhone specific. Fling covers the use of XHTML, XHTML-MP, CSS, JavaScript, and other applicable web technology. This is probably where the management types will start to skim over things. I do think though it still serves the purpose of giving an idea of what is possible and when it is appropriate to choose a pure web application over a native application.

I think that Fling does an excellent job showing that it is important to create mobile applications that are designed purely with mobile users in mind. The last chapter is only a couple pages long and is the only place that Fling devotes purely to prognosticating. The rest of the book is practical and focused purely on what will work right now. In his closing thoughts, Fling essentially invites the reader to be a part of bringing about the future of mobile. I think this is very fitting as he has just given his readers what they need to set out on that path."

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