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Reviews Written by
Isaac Rabinovitch (Portland, Or)

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Visio 2000 Bible
Visio 2000 Bible
by Mark H. Walker
Edition: Paperback
12 used & new from CDN$ 10.43

2.0 out of 5 stars The Checklist Syndrome, April 16 2003
This review is from: Visio 2000 Bible (Paperback)
The job of the technical writer is to make life easier for the technical
reader. We get paid big bucks to express complicated concepts in the simplest
possible way. It's not an easy job, but what's the fun in an easy job?
Unfortunately, many writers of technical content have other priorities. If
their work is "comprehensive", if it describes all the things it's supposed to
describe, they feel they've done their job. Never mind if the result is a
confusing assemblage of seemingly random facts, hard to follow and hard to
place in context.
Mark Walker is a poster child for this syndrome. It's pretty obvious how he
wrote Visio 2000 Bible. He made a comprehensive list of Visio features and
wrote about them one by one. Every feature, regardless of importance, gets much
the same treatment. Only a few cross references show how related features work
together. Little effort is made to describe the features clearly or concisely.
Here's an example. "There are two ways to activate and set snap and glue.
First, you can use the Snap and Glue Toolbar buttons (as shown in Figure 10-8),
or you can select Tools -> Snap & Glue to adjust settings in the Snap & Glue
dialog box. The Snap & Glue Toolbar button and dialog box are interrelated, so
a change in one also is recorded in the other. The following exercise
demonstrates the relationship...:" Then there's a lengthy demonstration of how
toolbar and dialog work. Then there's a mini-essay on when you'd use the
toolbar and when you'd use the dialog. And *then*, there's a vague, confusing
description of what the toolbar and dialog box are *for*. The whole discussion
uses up a couple of pages, but boils down to four simple statements: (1)
there's a bunch of Visio options relating to the Snap feature or the Glue
feature; (2) Two of these options enable or disable the two features; (3) the
rest of the options control the way the two features work; (4) you can set
these options one at a time (with the Snap & Glue toolbar) or all at once (with
the Snap & Glue dialog).
The reader can be excused for asking, "Jeesh, why didn't he just *say* that?"
Well, boiling complicated details down to simple descriptions is hard work. I
sometimes have to attack a concept six different ways before I'm able to
describe it in a few brief sentences. Good technical prose can be pretty
exhausting to write. It also tends to be discouraged by bosses and publishers,
who too often judge writers by the quantity of their output, not its quality.
Still, a good writer can deal with these issues. You help people understand why
fewer words often means better content. You balance work quality against
personal limitations and unavoidable deadlines. It's not easy to do all this
and still make a decent living. That's especially true if you're working
independently. But is that an excuse for short-changing your readers?

City of Bones
City of Bones
by Michael Connelly
Edition: Mass Market Paperback
49 used & new from CDN$ 0.01

2.0 out of 5 stars So Long, Harry, Feb. 27 2003
I've read, and mostly enjoyed, all the Harry Bosch novels. But with this one, Connelly has worn out his welcome.
HB is the classic "hard boiled dick", the detective that deals with the seamier side of life, that deals with people at their worst. You can tell a lot of interesting stories with this kind of protagonist, which is why there are so many hard boiled dick stories.
But all the "mean streets" stuff is just a premise. It's not an end in itself. Alas, that's the part Connelley is more and more fascinated with. The titles just keep getting more and more portentious, the story gets more and more nasty and meaningless. In the end, what's the point? You just have a depressive guy running through the streets yelling "Redemption! Redemption!"
What finally did it for me was the excerpt from the next Harry Bosch at the end of the paperback edition. This one will be narrated by Harry himself, in full self-absorbtion mode. No thank you!
I picture Harry running into my current genre favorite, John Sandford's Lucas Davenport. Like Harry, Lucas is a mean streets guy. (Of course, the streets of Minneapolis aren't nearly as mean as those of L.A.) Lucas would certainly say to Harry, "Get a life, dude!"

Microsoft Windows XP Professional
Microsoft Windows XP Professional
2 used & new from CDN$ 119.98

1 of 2 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars The "best" OS -- that's for you to decide., Jan. 26 2003
Here's an unpleasant fact about computers: you can't get one without an Operating System. Or rather, you can, but you can't really do anything useful with it. An OS contains all the basic software logic that all the other software needs to run. That's why Bill Gates is the richest man in the world: for a long time, he's sold a product that most PC users had no choice but to buy. It's only recently that serious alternatives to Microsoft OSs have become practical for most users.
Five years ago, this review would have just said, "Buy the MS OS -- you don't have a real choice." Sure, there were alternatives, but compatibility and support issues made them impractical for most people. But that's changing. So now a review of XP boils down to, "Should you consider an alternative"?
Note that I did not say "a better alternative". True believers in the competing OSs (and for most users, the competition is either MacOS or Linux) tend to get pretty religious about why their systems are better than Windows. And they're not entirely wrong. But these issues are mostly irrelevent to the average computer user.
Let's look at the two alternatives one at a time. First, MacOS, which only runs on Apple Macintosh hardware. Mac true believers claim that Mac hardware is fundamentally superior to the Intel/IBM design that most PCs use. And, in point of fact, I think they're probably right. Problem is, that superiority is at a level that just doesn't matter to the typical computer user. Yes, a 1GHz Mac will outperform a 1GHz PC. But even a 1GHz PC is a lot more computing power than most people need.
And this technical superiority is not free. Because they put more work into it, and because a lot of the tech is proprietary, Macs just plain cost more.
Still, you should strongly consider a Mac if you're totally intimidated by computers. Mac is the only system designed from the ground up with usability in mind.
Then there's the compatibility issue. That's less of a problem than it used to be. It's still true that most Windows software just isn't available for the Mac. But what software do most people need? They need basic internet software, which the Mac has. And they need office productivity software. Nowadays, that market is also dominated by Microsoft. But MS Office has a Mac version. Sharing Mac files with Windows users used to be a hassle, but Mac OS X does a lot to ease that problem.
The second alternative is Linux. The big advantage here is licensing costs. It's illegal to install a single licensed copy of Windows on multiple systems -- and with Windows XP, Microsoft has added feature that make it technically difficult as well. This is not an issue with Linux, which places no restriction at all on multiple installations or duplicating the installation CDs. If you're a programmer, you can even modify a Linux distribution and distribute it as your own product. Which is, of course, why there are so many Linux distributions. And also why people who enjoy fiddling with technology love Linux.
But what about everybody else? Is Linux a realistic alternative to Windows XP? I think it depends on who you are, what you need your computer to do, and how important the cost savings are.
Now, if you absolutely need to run certain Windows software, or your web browser just has to be 100% compatible with Internet Explorer, than Linux is just not an alternative. The compatibility gap between Windows and Linux is getting smaller every day, but it's still pretty big. And if something you need to do falls in the gap, you're stuck. And the gap will never close completely. For example, sharing word processor files will never be seamless and foolproof, unless you can somehow make the word processor work under Linux -- WP file formats are just too unstructured and complex.
On the other hand, if you're on a budget and compatibility is not an issue, Linux is a very serious alternative to Windows. This is especially true if you're in a position to burn your own installation CDs, either from borrowed originals or ISO images freely -- and legally -- available on the net. Amazon doesn't allow reviewers to post URLs, but ISO images are not hard to find, using your favorite web search engine.
As I mentioned, there are a lot of different Linux distributions. Most of my own experience is with Red Hat, which has the largest user community in English-speaking countries, and is thus on the top of my recommended list.
I've also been intrigued by Lycoris Linux, though I haven't gotten round to trying it. Most Linux distributions are made by and for techies, so they throw in every piece of free software a techie might want to play with. Lycoris focuses on providing a simple coherent package for the typical computer user.

Microsoft Windows XP Professional Upgrade [OLD VERSION]
Microsoft Windows XP Professional Upgrade [OLD VERSION]
3 used & new from CDN$ 83.97

2.0 out of 5 stars What do you need to do today?, Jan. 26 2003
I could say a lot of good things and bad things about Windows. But when you're selecting system software, you don't need a technical assessment. You need to know whether it meets needs that you have. Since I'm reviewing the upgrade version I'll assume that you're running Windows 98, ME, or 2000K. Maybe 95, though a machine that old probably couldn't handle XP.
So, should you upgrade? The short answer is, probably not. Some things about XP are better, some are worse. On balance, XP is just a little more solid than its predecessors. But better enough to justify the cost and hassle of upgrading? Not by itself.
If you just love fancy eye candy, then I guess you have to upgrade. For my part, I find that stuff distracting, and when I get an XP system, the first thing I do is turn it off. Besides, a lot of it doesn't work with existing application software. Even some of the software that ships with XP, like some of the optional tool bars, don't support the new look-and-feel.
And don't think of upgrading if your existing system isn't performing well with its existing version of Windows. XP makes more demands on the hardware, not less. If your system isn't up to your needs, then you need a new system. Which would include a full version of an Operating System. Should that OS be XP, or one of the alternatives (MacOS, Linux)? That's a subject for a separate review of the full version of XP. I may write that one soon.
The one solid reason I can think of for upgrading to XP is this: you have to run some fancy application that won't run what you currently have. That might be an issue if you're currently running Windows 98, since 98 and XP are really different operating systems. But if you're already running Windows 2000, I very much doubt you need to upgrade to XP to run anything.

Killing Floor
Killing Floor
by Lee Child
Edition: Mass Market Paperback
20 used & new from CDN$ 0.01

2.0 out of 5 stars Not as smart as it pretends to be, July 20 2002
What is it with British genre writers? They love to set their stories in the U.S., but actually researching the country seems to be too much work. So they wing it. Or they invent silly plot gimmicks to explain their lapses. Lee Child does both.
The big gimmick here is that Jack Reacher has spent his entire life outside the U.S., first as a Marine Corps brat, then as an officer in the U.S. Army MPs. This is supposed to explain how he's "exploring America" and relatively ignorant of its ways.
It's a pretty bogus gimmick (I can't think of any more "American" place to grow up than a U.S. miltary base -- even the ones overseas). And it doesn't do anything for a lot of related lapses, like the fact nobody investigating a counterfeiting ring seems to have ever heard of the Secret Service!
There are more lapses of a more logical nature. The story begins with a very engaging scene where Reacher is arrested by a group of heavily-armed well-trained cops. The scene is interesting because Reacher spends the arrest critiquing the police technique of the arresting officers (they're colleagues after all!). His assessment is that they're very-well trained, with a few minor lapses that turn out to be crucial to the plot.
Except that it makes no sense. It turns out that the cops work for a backwater city with no history of violent crime, and every reason *not* to want well-trained cops around.
Add to the mix an unlikely scheme for buying off every single inhabitant of the town, a lot of flawed logic as Reacher and his cohorts "deduce and detect", a fair number of coincidences and improbabilities, and you end up with a story that's just plain dumb.
There's also a lot of violence. It struck me as realistic enough -- actually too realistic for my taste. If that's what you like in your thrillers, by all means, buy this book. But lets not pretend there's anything deep here.

No Human Involved
No Human Involved
by Barbara Seranella
Edition: Mass Market Paperback
23 used & new from CDN$ 0.01

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Strange but satisfying, June 23 2002
I didn't enjoy the 70s, and if I'd picked up earler that this story was set in 1977 urban Southern California, I probably would have given it a pass. A fortunate mistake.
Not that Seranella makes me feel nostalgic. If anything, she paints a bleaker picture than I remember. An asphalt lanscape, populated with self-satisfied, bigoted Angelenos, burned out junkies, cynical cops... And yet she forces us to acknowledge a certain strange beauty in this landscape, where strangers, or even enemies, casually help each other out, or a tough garage owner starts a garden in his parking lot, because he can't bear to uproot a struggling tree.
Then there's a cop who ignores orders to stop working on a horrifying serial murder -- but still finds time to look after an aging father and restore the old Pullman rail car he lifes in.
And most of all there's Munch. Junkie, prostitute, thief. The useless scum referred to in the title? Yes and no. Because she's also a genius -- a wizard at fixing cars, a savant who drinks up the contents of books the way ordinary people drink water. The best parts of this book are about her struggles. With addiction -- which she imagines to be an alter ego, whispering in her ear, "just a taste". With a life stacked against her. With an appalling sense of herself, that horrifying personal dissociation you see in survivors of abuse. And in the end, she's the one who saves the day with a momentous, heroic act.

XML Bible
XML Bible
by Elliotte Rusty Harold
Edition: Paperback
21 used & new from CDN$ 1.24

5.0 out of 5 stars This is where you start!, April 15 2002
This review is from: XML Bible (Paperback)
Many beginners will be put off by the sheer size (1200 pages!) of this book. Big mistake. There aren't a lot of books that cover all the basics of XML technology, focus on the real needs of XML newbies, and do so in clear, readable prose. In fact, this may be the only one.
The problem with XML is that you can use it for a lot of different things. (Hence those 1200 pages.) So people who write about it tend to be specialists in some specific area, like building XML web applications, or designing XML document schemas, etc. Or else they're markup standards wonks, good at picking out the tiny nits that make the whole concept work, but terrible at explaining what XML is *for*.
Harold, by contrast, knows his readers, and knows what they need. He makes very few assumptions about what you already know. If you know how to use a text editor (but see below for a warning) and a web browser, you're ready to go. The author leads you step by step through all the basic concepts. There are a *lot* of steps, of course. But only the first 200 pages are absolutely essential for every reader. Not everybody needs to know about Document Type Definitions, Wireless Markup Language, or Scalable Vector Graphics. Not that there's any flab here -- all the different XML applications Harold describes are widely used, and it makes sense to include a good basic intro to all of them.
Harold also avoids a mistake I myself probably would have made -- he carefully avoids dealing XML's historical baggage. XML is a limited version of SGML -- a technology that wasted decades floundering in its own complexity. For once history really is bunk.
I do have some issues, more with the publisher than with the author. The big one is the sample text files on the CD -- all with Macintosh line endings! Judging from the screenshots, the author works mainly with Windows, so we can't blame him. If you're not a Mac person, you need a text editor that can handle these files, or a program for converting them. Notepad doesn't work, Wordpad does -- but complains a lot about "discarding formatting." If you're a vim user, add "mac" to the fileformats option.
Actually, it's pretty silly to even bother with a CD for this kind of material. Attention publishers! Book buyers are not impressed by "bonus cd-roms" that contain freely available software and text files that would be easier to download from the web. Nor are they impressed by silly markteroid terms like "Bible". Who are you, Charleton Heston?

Silent Joe
Silent Joe
by T. Jefferson Parker
Edition: Mass Market Paperback
Price: CDN$ 10.99
54 used & new from CDN$ 0.01

3.0 out of 5 stars An interesting exercise, April 13 2002
This review is from: Silent Joe (Mass Market Paperback)
You have to give Parker points for taking risks. I'm sure I've never read a myster with a hero/narrator quite like this one. Isolated from the rest of humanity by a gruesome childhood disfigurement, Silent Joe is just the kind of person you expect to grow up to be pushed out to the margins of society, and grow up to be an angry, selfish monster. But he lucks out because of internal assets (eidetic memory, extreme strength of will) and of his loving, wealthy adoptive parents. The end result is not quite believable, almost like a comic book superhero.

Dead Irish
Dead Irish
by John Lescroart
Edition: Mass Market Paperback
27 used & new from CDN$ 0.01

2.0 out of 5 stars Lots of good characters..., April 13 2002
This review is from: Dead Irish (Mass Market Paperback)
In fact, way too many of them. Lescroart is so busy marching people on and off stage that he forgets to get the plot going for way, way too long.
The Dismas Hardy series does get better. But unless you're one of those compulsive people (like me) who has to read a series from the beginning, skip this one.

Secrets and Lies: Digital Security in a Networked World
Secrets and Lies: Digital Security in a Networked World
by Bruce Schneier
Edition: Hardcover
55 used & new from CDN$ 0.78

4.0 out of 5 stars Good and Bad, Dec 28 2001
This is basically a good book. Very readable, usually very clear, very broad scope. I think every issue that a security manager needs to know about is at least mentioned, with the really important issues discussed at length. Schneier tries (and usually succeeds) in writing for a general audience without dumbing down the important stuff. Mandatory reading if you have any interest in security.

That being said, there are some nits I have to pick. The material is very ad hoc, backed up by mainly by personal (though extensive) experience and casual reading. A useful knowledge base, but limited as a source of primary information.
This is aggravated by Schneier's use of non-technical examples and analogies in many of his arguments. The arguments themselves are very strong, but when he cites this historical example or that financial practice, he often gets his facts wrong. I don't suppose this has a big effect on his credibility, but it must have some.
It's also a little disappointing that Schneier didn't bother to get into the general history of the Engima/Ultra business -- a prime example of his basic theme, that the smallest failure of the security process is vulnerable to machines with infinite patience.
Finally, I'm very, very disappointed that Scheier fails to challenge -- and sometimes even supports -- the social conservative attitude towards hacking and reverse engineering. He points out the futility of trying to encrypt DVDs -- but barely touches on the DMCA. He speaks of general software hacking as a basically benign activity -- but he strongly supports criminal punishment even for the most non-invasive electronic "trespass". This is a point of view utterly at odds with his ideas of security considered in a complete social context.

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