The Imaginative Universal

Studies in Virtual Phenomenology -- by @jamesashley, Kinect MVP and author

$5 eBooks from Packt

The technical publisher Packt is offering eBooks for $5 through January 6th, 2015 as a holiday promotion. I encourage you to look very carefully through their selection and see what appeals. If you have time to read on, however, I’d like to explain in greater detail my mixed feelings about Packt (this was probably not the marketing department’s intention when they sent me an email asking me to publicize the promotion but I think it will ultimately be helpful to them).

Packt Publishing has always been hit or miss for me. They are typically much more adventurous regarding computer book topics than other publishers like Apress or O’Reilly (Apress is my publisher, by the way, and are pretty fantastic to work with and very professional). At the same time, I have the impression that Packt’s bar for accepting authors tends to be lower than other publishers’, which allows them to be prolific in their offerings but at the same time entails that they produce, quite honestly, some clunkers.

A specific example of one of their clunkers would be the Packt book Unity iOS Game Development Beginner’s Guide by Greg Pierce. The topic sounds great (at least it did to me) but it turns out the book mostly just copies from publicly available documentation.

To quote from one of the Amazon reviews from 2012 by C Toussieng:

“This book is unbelievably bad. What specifically? All of it. It takes information which can be easily garnered from the Unity and/or Apple websites, distills it down to a minimally useful amount, then charges you for it.

And this one from 2012 by JasonR:

The book basically covers a few pages of the Unity docs, then goes into 3rd party plugins they recommend, each plugin gets a couple of pages. Frankly, a simple search on Google will give you more insight.”

This is a shame since, even as more learning material is always appearing on the Internet which displaces the traditional place of technical books in the software ecosystem – material that is often free – there is still an important role for print books (and their digital equivalent, the eBook). While online material can be thrown out quickly, often covering about a fifth to a tenth of a chapter of a book that goes through the print publishing industry, they tend to lack the cohesiveness that is only possible in a work that has taken months to write and rewrite. A 300-page software book is a distillation of experience which has undergone multiple revisions and fact checking. A really good software book tries to tell a story.

The flip side, of course, is that modern technical books quickly become outdated while technical blog posts simply disappear. All in all, though, I find that sitting down with a book that tries to explain the broader impact of a given technology serves a different and more important purpose than a web tutorial that only shows how to perform streamlined – and often ideal --  tasks.

A propos of the thesis that good software books are distillations of years of experience – we could even say distillations of 10,000 hours of experience – I’d like to point you to some of the gems I’ve discovered through Packt Publishing over the years.

All of the Packt OpenCV books are interesting. I’m particularly fond of Mastering OpenCV with Practical Computer Vision Projects by Daniel Lélis Baggio, but I think all of them – at least the ones I’ve read – are pretty good. Daniel’s bio says that he “…started his works in computer vision through medical image processing at InCor (Instituto do Coração – Heart Institute) in São Paulo, Brazil.”

Another great one is Mastering openFrameworks: Creative Coding Demystified by Denis Perevalov. According to his bio, Denis is a computer vision research scientist at the Ural Branch of the Russian Academy of Sciences and co-author of two Russian patents of robotics.

One I really like simply because the topic is so specific is Kenny Lammers’ Unity Shaders and Effects Cookbook. His bio states that Kenny has been in the game industry for 13 years working for companies like “… Microsoft, Activision, and the late Surreal Software.”

I hope a theme is emerging here. The people who write these books actually have a lot of experience and are trying to pass their knowledge on to you in something more than easily digestible exercises. Best of all – ignoring the example from above – the material is typically highly original. It isn’t copy and pasted from 20 other websites covering the same material. Instead, the reader gets an opinionated and distinct take on the technology covered in each of these books.

What I especially appreciate about the $5 promotions Packt occasionally surfaces is that, for five dollars, you aren’t really obligated to try to read the entire book to get your money’s worth. I’ve taken advantage of similar deals in the past to simply read very specific chapters that are of interest to me such as Basic heads-up-display with custom GUI from Dr. Sebastian Koenig’s Unity for Architectural Visualization or Lighting and Rendering from Jen Rizzo’s Cinema 4D Beginner’s Guide. It’s also a great price when all I want to do is to skim a book on a topic I know pretty well in order to find out if there are any holes in my knowledge. Mastering Leap Motion by Brandon Sanders was extremely helpful for this and, indeed, there were holes in my knowledge.

According to his biography, by the way, Brandon is “… an 18-year-old roboticist who spends much of his time designing, building, and programming new and innovative systems, including simulators, autonomous coffee makers, and robots for competition. At present, he attends Gilbert Finn Polytechnic (which is a homeschool) as he prepares for college. He is the founder and owner of Mechakana Systems, a website and company devoted to robotic systems and solutions.”

RESTful WCF at Atlanta Code Camp

gullivers_travels

This past Saturday was the Atlanta Code Camp.  I want to be make a point of thanking Cliff Jacobson, Dan Attis, Doug Ware, Glen Gordon, Jeff Ammons and all the other organizers who made this a brilliant event.

My company, Magenic Technologies, presented at seven of the sessions this year. 

Sergey Barskiy, who was a developer on the CSLA-Lite team, presented on Building Silverlight Business Applications using CSLA.NET for Silverlight.

Whitney Weaver, another of our principal consultants and a master of all things data, spoke on What’s my data doing while I sleep? Tracking data changes in SQL Server 2008.

Colin Whitlatch presented an Introduction to ASP.NET MVC, and is planning to extend his presentation over the next few weeks on his blog, where he will be digging deep into ASP.NET MVC and helping others to do the same.

Jason Rainwater needs a blog, because he is currently one of the best WPF experts in Atlanta and there aren't enough venues at this point for him to show off everything he knows.  He did two presentations this year: WPF Custom Controls and WPF DataBinding.

I presented on REST-ful WCF (the hyphen is a personal grammatical quirk rather than any attempt to make a philosophical point) and Mocking with Rhino Mocks and TypeMock: A Head-to-head Comparison.  I also got to make a short app-dev appearance in Tejas Patel's Use of data mining controls with ASP.NET presentation.

As promised to the attendees, I'm making the code samples and slide-decks available.  Please excuse the lack of organization in the code -- it's pretty much just what I was writing while I was on-stage, but should be helpful if anyone is looking for samples.  All the code uses Visual Studio 2008.  The mocking samples will require that you have the appropriate dll's for Rhino Mocks, which is free,  and TypeMock Isolator, which has a 30-day trial.

I am indebted to Pedram Rezaei for getting me started on the WCF-to-Flikr sample.

The Rest-ful WCF slide-deck and code can be downloaded here.

The Mocking powerpoint and samples are available here.

Meatware

A Gibsonesque cyber-word, meatware refers, somewhat contemptuously, to those aspects of information processing that are neither software nor hardware.  Programming is a grueling mental activity, and there is a tendency among software programmers to, shall we say, not look after themselves.  There is an old adage that one should never trust a thin cook, and this might be extended to programmers also.  The most consummate technologists spend so much of their time in virtual worlds that their bodies often get neglected.  The state of their bodies becomes, consequently, an ironic badge of their devotion to their craft.

It has been said, mainly by its critics, that Modernism in philosophy since Descartes is distorted by the implicit assumption that object of philosophy is strictly rational, conscious, and intellectual.  This trend was turned back, somewhat, by Heidegger's discussion of Mood in his masterpiece Being and Time.  Maurice Merleau-Ponty's Phenomenology of Perception, which at times reads like a rewriting of Being and Time much as Sartre's Being and Nothingness does, takes this battle further by placing himself within the heart of the intellectual tradition, Husserl's Phenomenology, and emphasizing the point that all perception, all experience, occurs through the medium of our bodies.  This was, strangely enough, a revolutionary insight at the time.

Eventually Feminism (or at least certain branches of Feminist thought) took up this controversy and used it as a central template for understanding the misunderstandings between men and women.  Men misunderstand humanity as a primarily intellectual (and phallic) being.  Women, on the other hand, implicitly understand the role of the body in the same way that tides understand gravity.   It is an inescapable aspect of a woman's existence, which the scholars of women's issues tend to call "embodiment".

It can't be said that software programmers really learned anything from the insights of Feminism other than the fact that they would prefer to have very little to do with the body.  If there is such a thing as human nature, software programming tends to distort it and encourage anti-social behaviors such as distractedness, obsessiveness and self-medication.  Exemplary programmers need not be exemplary human beings, and perhaps ought not to be, to Aristotle's dismay.

Stephen Dubner at Our Daily Bleg suggests an economic explanation for the rise in American obesity.  He suggests that the elimination of outhouses and dramatic improvements in indoor plumbing may have led to the rapid increase in median weight.  Our improved ability to vacate our own waste, he avers, has lowered the inconvenience of indulging in the gastronomic pastime, and so we do.  It depends, I imagine, on whether one seeks answers in the superstructure or in the base. 

Vanity Fair, on the other hand, has a series of articles currently online which may provide a glimpse at what the unhealthy have to look forward to.  Though not himself a programmer, Christopher Hitchens has drunk, smoked and eaten himself to the point that he can be mistaken for one.  At 58, he attempts to turn back the clock of desultory living with a check-in at a spa, and writes about it. 

The articles are accompanied by illustrative photos which highlight this cautionary tale about the importance of maintaining your meatware.