The Lego Build-It Book: More Amazing Vehicles

The Lego Build-It Book: More Amazing Vehicles
by Nathanael Kuipers and Mattia Zamboni
$15.90 at Amazon ($9.99 Kindle)

I’ve reviewed a number of Lego books recently, and they’ve all had the same problem: not much in the way of step-by-step instructions. While I can see the value in books of ideas and concepts, I enjoy following the instructions to put together a model, and it’s been difficult to accomplish that other than by buying more Lego sets. Until now.

This book (like the first one in the series, which I haven’t yet read) contains instructions on how to build ten different vehicles, from a hot rod and roadster to an excavator and big rig. The instruction quality is essentially what you would expect from a Lego set; I’ve been putting together Lego 10214 Tower Bridge and the instructions here are of similar quality and detail. Each model has photos from several angles, a complexity rating, design notes, and technical specifications, making it easier to decide what you’d like to build. I doubt I’ll build all of them, but several look interesting. There’s a little bit of theory at the beginning, but for the most part this is just a set of plans for 10 different models, as promised.

One decision I didn’t care for was the use of Lego 5867 as the base, as I found that to be a somewhat boring set (as well as being difficult to find at a reasonable price, being discontinued); it would have been nice if the authors could have picked a set that’s currently in production. Still, I imagine that when they started working on the book it was readily available, so I don’t take points off for that. Additionally, there is a complete parts list at the front of the book (though not for the individual models); while it doesn’t list the part numbers, these are mostly common parts that should be easy enough to purchase separately if you don’t want to buy the complete set.

Overall, I’d say this is the best Lego book I’ve looked at so far, although I could be biased due to my engineering background. While I’m sure it wouldn’t sell as well, I would love to see a similar book using one of the larger (and currently available) architecture or Star Wars sets. (I wanted to say Space Police, but we seem to be between versions again) I feel like having the extra model instructions really adds to the value of the set.

Disclosure: I received a free review copy of this book.

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The Traveling Photographer: A Guide to Great Travel Photography

The Traveling Photographer: A Guide to Great Travel Photography by Sandra Petrowitz
$24.08 at Amazon

Everybody likes to take pictures when they travel, but few come home with great art; mostly, we see snapshots that reveal little other than “I was there”. As someone about to start work on a travel magazine project, I was interested to see what travel photographer Sandra Petrowitz has to say on the subject.

This book seems most appropriate for the advanced beginner to intermediate photographer. The assumption is that you know how to use your camera and you know the basics of photography; no space is devoted to explaining f-stops, proper exposures, and all that. It does, however, discuss the basic rules of composition, such as the rule of thirds and giving a subject space to move. Much of what is in the book is applicable to all photography, rather than specifically travel photography: changing perspective, using portrait format, using fill flash, etc.

What I would have liked to see is more information on how to choose a subject, or a view of the subject, to spice up your travel photography. There are some tips for interacting with the people you want to photograph and finding unusual viewpoints for architectural shots, but mostly it boils down to be polite, be yourself, and find your own viewpoint. The photographs illustrating the book are nice and technically well-done, but nothing that I felt the desire to hang on my wall.

Overall, I would have no problem recommending this book for a beginning or intermediate photographer, but expert photographers who want to move into travel photography should probably look elsewhere.

Disclosure: I received a free review copy of this book.

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Survive! Inside the Human Body, Vol 1: The Digestive System

Survive! Inside the Human Body, Vol 1: The Digestive System by Gomdori Co. & Hyun-Dong Han
$12.92 at Amazon

Survive: Inside the Human body is a fun way to learn about how the body works. In this first installment of the series, after being shrunk and accidentally eaten, Geo and Dr. Brain must fight their way through Phoebe’s digestive system without falling prey to stomach acid or parasites and without harming Phoebe.

Survive! cover

The book is drawn in a clean anime style and is fun to read while being extremely educational. It’s been a long time since I took high school biology, so I learned a lot from reading this book; at the same time, I expect it would be accessible to children (the recommended age is 8 and up, although Amazon has it as 7 and up). Every so often there’s a break from the story for several pages of more in-depth detail on the body part we’re currently traveling through, which I imagine the youngest readers might decide to skip.

The book has a fair number of “Really? Ewww!” moments (this IS the digestive system, after all) that kids will get a real kick out of. The translation is excellent, with none of the lingual artifacts you often find in translated works. Highly recommended.

Disclosure: I received a free review copy of this book.

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Lego Space: Building the Future

Lego Space: Building the Future by Peter Reid and Tim Goddard
$15.78 at Amazon ($9.99 Kindle)

When I was a kid, my favorite Legos were the Space Legos – Blacktron, M-tron, Space Police! I always wished I had more of them, but when I started playing with Legos again as an adult they were long since discontinued. Thus, I was happy to receive a copy of Lego Space, which promises step by step building instructions for similar models.

The book is written as something of a history, starting with Sputnik in 1957 and rapidly progressing to the birth of the Federation in the mid-21st century, proceeding into the colonization of Mars, first contact, and interstellar exploration. A variety of ships are presented, evoking all the classic models – the three previously mentioned plus Ice Planet. Ships are generally shown from multiple angles.

Overall, the book is very well done; I only have two complaints. The first is that, while the blurb suggests this is an instruction book, it actually contains only a handful of detailed instructions; for the rest of the models, you’ll have to figure out how to put them together yourself (although the pictures will give you a pretty good idea). I would have loved to have seen instructions for some of the larger ships. The other is that, as with similar books I’ve seen, there’s no parts lists for the models; if you don’t have a piece you need (or a substitute) it may be a challenge to figure out exactly what the piece is called so you can order one (or find a set containing it).

Despite those flaws, this was a fun read and it would make an excellent coffee table book.

Disclosure: I received a free review copy of this book.

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Double Down

Double Down by Mark Halperin and John Heilemann
$17.30 at Amazon ($11.93 Kindle)

In early October 2012, things seemed to be going very well indeed for Mitt Romney. He faced an unpopular incumbent presiding over a still-lethargic economy. He had access to a staggering amount of money (his total spending surpassed the president’s by over a hundred million dollars), although he had limited control over the significant fraction of it that passed through the Romney-aligned Super PACs. Finally, he was in complete control of the first debate, coming out of Denver as the clear winner. Yet a few weeks later, he would lose the election by millions of votes, with the president claiming over 60% of the electoral college.

There have already been a number of books written about the 2012 election, and will no doubt be many more, but Double Down has been hotly anticipated as a sequel to 2010′s Game Change. As in Game Change, the authors appear to have been granted extensive access to hundreds of people involved in the campaigns; they credit over 500 interviews (all, naturally, on deep background). But does the book live up to the hype?

For the most part, the writing is very good and kept me turning pages. The authors do have an annoying tendency to never use a common word where an obscure word will do, which detracts from the readability; I consider myself to have a pretty good vocabulary, but I found myself pulling out my phone more than once to look up yet another obscure adjective. Otherwise, the book flows fairly well. The first section, by far the shortest, covers the Obama administration in the lead-up to the election season. I got the sense that the authors felt they had already covered Obama sufficiently in Game Change and now wanted to concentrate on the republicans.

Section two covers the republican primary season. As with the primary voters, the text jumps from one candidate to another as Bachmann, Perry, Cain, Gingrich, and Santorum become ascendant, but always returns to Mitt Romney as the current not-Mitt flames out. Romney is definitely the star of the book, and where Obama intrudes in this section, he and his policies are seem from Romney’s point of view.

In section three, the stage is set, the candidates selected. From the Obama side, we see the reconciliation with Clinton and the struggles the candidate has in switching from his preferred professorial lecture mode to the style required of modern presidential debates. Still, the focus remains on the Romney campaign, the struggles they have with introducing their candidate to the country, and some of the innumerable missteps they took along the way.

What disappointed me about this book was that, except for things I would classify as gossip (such as who told Harry Reed that Romney went a decade without paying taxes, and several incidents demonstrating why Obama’s feelings of betrayal when private stories were leaked to the press), there isn’t a lot of new information in this book. I had hoped to read more about the Obama administration’s get out the vote operation and their vaunted computer system (and the Romney campaign’s disastrous ORCA system), but these went unmentioned; while they’ve been covered to some extent in other books, I haven’t seen one that covers them in the level of detail I would like to see. What I did enjoy was the details of how each of the republican candidates, most of whom I would consider to have zero chance of becoming president, came to sincerely believe at one time or another that he or she would win the nomination and the election.

In the end, this is a book not about tactics or policy, but about people – about the choices that Obama and Romney (and, to a lesser extent, the other republican candidates) made about how to present themselves to the voters. Right up to election day, Romney believed that he would be the victor, and this book attempts (largely successfully) to demonstrate how he and the people around him viewed his candidacy. For the most part, this is the story of Mitt Romney.

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Querying Microsoft SQL Server

Training Kit (Exam 70-461): Querying Microsoft SQL Server 2012 by Itzik Ben-Gan, Dejan Sarka, and Rom Talmage
$43.79 at Amazon ($69.99 cover price)

I’ve been using SQL Server at work for a couple of years now, but I’m not a DBA; I mostly just run simple queries to test that data was loaded correctly by our ETL process. This year I’m leading a small group of coworkers who want to become more proficient in SQL Server, so we’re studying for the MCSA in SQL Server 2012. This certification requires passing exams in three areas; the material on the first exam, 70-461, is the subject of this book.

The book starts out with the obligatory disclaimers: real-world experience is required to pass the exam, and you should already understand how to write a query and run it, even if you don’t know the fine details. Naturally, you’ll need a copy of SQL Server 2012 (a trial copy is fine). The book comes with a CD containing practice tests, an PDF of the text, and a copy of the scripts (which can also be downloaded from O’Reilly). Finally, the book includes a coupon code for 15% off any Microsoft Certified Professional Program exam; the tests normally run $150, so that’s probably a $22.50 savings if you plan to take the exam.

Before getting into the code, we start off with Chapter 1: Foundations of Querying, where we learn a little about set theory and the difference between standard SQL and Microsoft’s T-SQL. (Incidentally, if you’re trying to do a search for how to do something in SQL Server and want to avoid getting results from other flavors of SQL, searching in T-SQL is a good way to do it.) Chapter two brings in some code: the select statement. At this point, you’ll need to have installed the TSQL2012 database (which, as mentioned, is a free download). With the basics down, chapters three through seven discuss various ways of querying and managing the data, including filtering, sorting, combining, and grouping. In chapter eight, we start actually creating our own tables; chapters eight through eleven cover the various data structures (tables, views, functions, etc) that we can create and how to insert, update, and delete the data in them. After that we move into more advanced topics, such as error handling, dynamic SQL, and performance.

My study group has been going through the book at a rate of one chapter per week and found it quite readable. My only real complaint has been that the test questions at the end of the chapter sometimes ask about something that wasn’t actually discussed, but this is a minor irritant. A few chapters are fairly dense, but most of the writing flows easily, and we found a few tidbits that should be helpful at work.

The practice test gives you several options First is study mode, in which you choose how many questions you want and can look at the answers whenever you like; this mode is not timed. In certification mode, you have a 44 questions to complete; this mode is timed (with two hours given) and you cannot stop the timer. In custom mode you can set it up however you like, including specifying the objectives to be included. When looking at the explanation (either during a study mode test or afterward) you also get a reference to the appropriate chapter of the book and relevant pages on MSDN. After completing a test, you’ll see your overall score as well as your sub-score on each of the exam objectives, and can generate a learning plan (that is, links to MSDN pages on what you missed). All of the questions I’ve seen so far are multiple choice, however, which I’ve heard is not true of the actual exam.

I haven’t taken the exam yet (I expect to do so in October or November, though scheduling it is inconvenient) so I can’t say for sure how well the book has prepared me for it, but I feel like I’ve learned a lot about T-SQL by reading it. I’ll update this review after the test, but for now I rate this book a definite buy.

Disclosure: I received a free review copy of this book.

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HTML5 Graphing and Data Visualization Cookbook

HTML5 Graphing and Data Visualization Cookbook by Ben Fhala
$44.99 at Amazon

Although I’ve been using HTML5 for a few years now, I haven’t yet done much with the Canvas, the new drawing element. Having started, it reminds me of nothing so much as moving the turtle around in the old Logo programming language.

In HTML5 Graphing and Data Visualization Cookbook, we start out by learning to create basic shapes in Canvas, with the gimmick of creating various national flags. This takes up only the first two chapters of the book, as it is presumed that the reader is already comfortable with HTML and JavaScript; the remaining eight chapters involve creating and using maps, graphs, and charts, both simple and animated. Towards the end of the book, we actually get into using the Google Maps API to overlay our data onto a world map.

In each chapter, we start by typing in some new code and run it; after that, the book discusses what the code is doing. I liked the format because you see results right away – each code segment is relatively short – and then after seeing what happens, you see how it works. I also liked the little mathematical explanations and programming asides that pop up here and there. The chapter organization also makes it easy to jump to the section of the book you’re interested in, so I think this will make a good reference.

There were two things that irritated me about this book. The first was that the spacing in code is a little odd, with extra spaces where I wouldn’t expect to see them and no space where I do expect one. This doesn’t affect how the code works, but it’s a little distracting. The book is also written in a fairly informal manner, complete with smileys; at times I felt like I was reading blog posts rather than a professional programming book. That said, neither of those really takes away from the usability of the book, and are more a matter of personal preference than anything else. For the topic this book covers, I haven’t seen anything better.

Disclosure: I received a free review copy of this book.

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The Healthy Programmer

The Healthy Programmer by Joe Kutner
$27.05 at Amazon

Everybody knows the stereotype of the programmer: hunched over a desk, working too many hours, drinking too much caffeine. By and large, the stereotype is true, and we have the back, wrist, and eye aches to prove it.

The Healthy Programmer is a quick read, with a companion iPhone app, that aims to help programmers take better care of ourselves. As with almost all health and wellness books, there’s no revolutionary new information here – much of the contents I’ve seen before, in one form or another – but the author does a good job of relating the content to its intended audience. Each chapter (Preventing Back Pain, Refactoring Fitness, etc) starts out with a story that introduces the topic, dips briefly into the scientific details (there’s a long bibliography at the back of the book), then lays out practical steps to take (such as simple exercises to add to your daily routine) and a goal (such as getting an eye exam or taking a yoga class). The free app is essentially a checklist for doing your recommended items (take 10k steps per day, get five minutes of movement every hour) but the author also recommends various other sites you can use if you prefer something more elaborate.

I just finished the book this afternoon and haven’t worked through all the exercises or met most of the goals yet, but it already inspired me to download a pedometer and start keeping track of how much I walk (a little under 4k steps per day, it turns out) and to make the effort to fidget more while working at my desk. I’ve never been much for exercise, but after reading this book I’m feeling at least a little bit motivated. Five stars for a quick, interesting, and inspiring read.

Disclosure: I received a free review copy of this book.

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Getting Started with Raspberry Pi

Getting Started with Raspberry Pi by Matt Richardson and Shawn Wallace
$12.18 at Amazon ($8.69 Kindle)

The Raspberry Pi is a hot new computer system, approximately the size of a credit card and costing $25-$35 (plus a $5 markup depending on where you buy one – my preferred source is Sparkfun Electronics in Boulder). The Pi is a system on a chip that includes a 700Mhz processor and separate GPU, plus up to half a gig of RAM; the model B comes with several USB ports, an ethernet port, and HDMI output. They can be used from everything to learning to program under Linux to streaming HD video to your television.

With so many possibilities, though, it can be hard to know where to start, especially if you’re not accustomed to using Linux – which is why I picked up a copy of Getting Started with Raspberry Pi. This is a fairly short book that doesn’t go into any topic in depth, but it gives you a good starting point and links to more information. It’s a quick way of getting going and figuring out what you want to do with your Raspberry Pi.

Chapter one covers obtaining a Pi and getting it set up. The technical information is more detailed than the actual setup instructions, but extra setup help is available in the first appendix. What I like about this chapter is that it has nice diagrams showing were everything is on the Pi.

Chapter two is an introduction to Linux, the free operating system you’ll use on the Pi. While there are several distributions that will work, the officially recommended official distribution is a variant of Debian called Raspbian. This chapter will get you going with using the command line and maneuvering through the Linux filesystem.

In chapter three, we start our first programming language: Python! Raspbian has both Python 2.7 and Python 3 included, so you’re ready to go with whichever version you prefer. Python is a high-level language with the design philosophy that there should be one obvious way to do things (as opposed to Perl’s “more than one way to do it” approach). This chapter has you writing a simple program and ends with a list of resources for learning the language, such as the online Learn Python the Hard Way book. Once you’ve learned the basics, chapter four moves into doing animation and multimedia using the Pygame framework.

One of the reasons for creating the Raspberry Pi was for kids to be able to learn to program, without the worry of damage to the household computer. Accordingly, the Pi comes with MIT’s Scratch, which is a graphical programming language that can be used to learn the basics of programming without actually having to code; you can easily drag commands around to make simple animations and games. Chapter five covers Scratch.

Prior to the release of the Pi, the Arduino was the go-to component for embedded systems hobbyists. Many of the components used with the Arduino, as well as the Arduino itself, can be used with the Raspberry Pi. Chapters six through eight have you doing physical things with your Pi, like turning LEDs (or lamps) on and off and reading in input from buttons. (The Pi can handle a number of digital inputs, appendix C covers converting analog inputs) Chapter nine takes that a step farther, using a webcam with the Pi (which, after all, uses a chip meant for cell phones, which generally have cameras). The Pi can even handle simple face detection.

Finally, chapter ten discusses creating internet-connected projects, such as using the Pi as a web server.

I found this book to be a nice, quick read; typos were minimal and it gives a good overview of the different things you can do with the Pi. So far it’s inspired me to start learning Python, which seems like a nice little scripting language, and I’m considering eventually turning my Pi into a DVR. What will you do with yours?

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CLR via C#

CLR via C# by Jeffrey Richter
$34.48 at Amazon

While I did notice when Microsoft introduced .NET and the CLR (Common Language Runtime), it wasn’t until 2011 that I first used them, when I had the opportunity to learn C#. At the time, I needed a working knowledge of the language – enough to do some minor debugging – but I never really dived into the details. Over the last few months I’ve found myself getting more involved with updating C# and VB.NET code, leading to a desire to go more in-depth into C# and the framework. Given the reviews, I’ve had my eye on CLR via C# for a while, so the new edition pushed it to the top of my reading list.

In the past I haven’t been very impressed with the level of editing at Microsoft Press (I absolutely detested their book on SQL Server 2008) but they’ve definitely improved lately; CLR via C# is a pleasure to read. As the title would imply, the book covers the various features of the Common Language Runtime using C# sample code (and mentioning other languages when the designers of C# chose not to implement something that the runtime supports). The author also throws in his own opinions on various design decisions, which I find interesting.

I have two problems with most programming books. The first is that they tend to be boring to read. The second is that they tend to be written at one of two levels: either they assume you’re an absolute beginner and work up from Hello World (here’s what assignment is, here’s what a loop is, here are the ways to write one) or they assume that you’re already completely fluent in one language and just want a dictionary to convert that to another language. In the first case, anyone who isn’t a beginner is bored out of his or her mind (bringing us back to point one); in the second case, the book is hard to use unless you’re already familiar with the concepts and the language the author assumes you’re coming from. For myself, I learned to program around 1988 and programmed on and off until 2004, when I became a math teacher; when I started writing code again, what I needed is something that would explain concepts I wasn’t familiar with (partial classes, delegates, etc) without first requiring me to wade through the programming equivalent of “See spot run”.

CLR via C# is one of very few books I’ve seen that manages to strike that kind of balance. While it throws in a lot of the basics – value types vs reference types, for example – they’re used in the context of explaining how something is implemented in the CLR, so it still keeps my interest. The text is nicely cross-referenced, which has the helpful side effect of reminding you (if you’re reading the book straight through as I chose to do) whether or not it’s referring to something you’ve already covered, as well as either reinforcing already-learned material or previewing more advanced structures.

When I started the book I got bogged down a bit in the first section, which covers how the assemblies are put together, but I felt it really picked up from there. For me it clarified a few concepts that I’ve seen referenced but never formally learned. As a matter of personal preference I also liked that while the code was in the CLR language I use most, the book also mentioned areas where the differences between the languages affect code interacting between them. Overall, highly recommended.

Disclosure: I received a free review copy of this book.

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