Book Review: “Swarm” by B.V. Larson

Warning: Spoiler Alert: If you intend to read the book, please do not read this review.

Review

Rating:

  • Harlequin level: n/a
  • Plot/action/story: 5
  • Solid conclusion: 5
  • SciFi thrill: 4
  • Fantasy thrill: n/a
  • Part of a series but doesn’t skimp: n/a – Not sure since I haven’t read any other books in the series (yet)

Overall thoughts about the book

I borrowed B.V. Larson’s “Swarm” from the Kindle Owner’s Library. The reviews were decent though I didn’t have high expectations.

The story is told from the main character’s first person point of view. Although the analogy is weak – it reminds me of the falling into the rabbit hole part of “Alice in Wonderland”. It is a well edited book that has a fast pace.

Kyle Riggs is a computer science teacher at Merced University. He lives on a small family farm with 2 kids. His wife passed away 10 years before in a car accident.

I like the fact that Larson doesn’t dawdle. Within a few pages, the big bad shows up – an alien ship that abducts and kills his son and daughter. Then the big black arm of the ship takes him.

As a parent, it’s heart wrenching to watch Kyle’s helplessness as his kids are killed. When he takes command of the ship after passing its nasty tests, you think that he could bring the kids back due to the ship’s advance technologies but it’s one of those false hope moments that crushes Kyle and you as a reader.

I recognized the voice then, the one in my head that was saying these attractive things. It was the evil, chattering hope-monkey. I had met this creature before, mostly in dreams, after Donna had died. She would be alive in my dreams and I would awaken, smiling, planning my day with her. But each morning I would rediscover with fresh despair that she was still dead. A grief counselor I’d talked to had named the phenomena the hope-monkey.

I think it’s this visceral sort of connection to this character that makes the story great. I’m not sure if I would feel that connection if I wasn’t close to Kyle’s age and life stage.

The technological description is fairly raw and detailed. But I think that beyond the introduction, the thing that kept my interested was Kyle’s computer science approach when dealing with an alien AI. His whole debugging approach resonated with me from a software development point of view.

I think that any software geek would definitely enjoy the book from a problem/puzzle point of view. The automated nature of the Nanos and the Macros is also quite interesting in a programmatic puzzle sort of way.

And just when you think it’s a big happy ending and the ‘good guys win’, Larson smacks you upside the head with cold computer logic setting you up for his second book. If you’ve dealt with computer programming, then the realism of this computer logic based ending is quite sobering and makes the book great.

“Swarm” is the first of the Star Force series (currently at 12 books). I’m definitely willing to give book 2 (“Extinction”) a chance. But I’m leery of such series since many times they end up being more a money play rather than an amazing saga. Maybe Larson’s series is different…I don’t know.

Some neat passages:

I felt as if I were suffocating, as if a great hand had come down and closed over me, putting me out like fingers snuffing a candle flame.

I thought about what Crow had said about achieving independence. No political group was allowed to do so unless it was strong enough to fight for its freedom.

Alliances are always forged in the fires of necessity, rather than poured from the sweet wine of love. I recalled having read that quote somewhere and it seemed particularly apt today.

Internally, I did not call myself a volunteer. I recalled having been drafted by a silent, black starship, in the middle of the night.

A smile split my face. Stupid machine. It had been programmed not to answer any questions about the creators. But it hadn’t been programmed not to answer questions in the negative. In other words, it could talk about what they were not.

Adobe Voice – is it worth it?

If you’re an instructor – is Adobe Voice worth using?

The short answer: no.

Overview

My co-worker (Matt) showed me Adobe Voice and suggested that it might be a useful tool for creating instructional presentations. In this post, I review Adobe voice from the point of view of an instructor. Some questions that I’ve kept in mind while doing this:

  • Does it allow me to create compelling presentations?
  • How difficult is it to use?
  • Can I preserve my source materials? (to clarify – consider that regardless of your like/dislike of PowerPoint all PowerPoint presentations since 1.0 can still be used and modified with the latest version of PowerPoint)
  • Is this product going to be around in a year?

In the summary section I describe what I see as the pros/cons of Adobe Voice. While in the detail section I cover my test presentation and usage of Adobe Voice.

You can find the sample presentation that I created on Adobe Voice at: https://voice.adobe.com/a/VNo0k/

Summary aka ;TLDR

Ironically, Adobe seems to own your voice when you use Adobe Voice. Consequently, from an instructor point of view I don’t think it is worthwhile. It has great value as a potential form of self expression that also advertises for Adobe. It is great for throwaway projects and has potential as a brainstorming tool assuming that you don’t care about your brainstorming’s artifacts.

Stepping for a moment away from the instructional point of view, Adobe Voice is a great showcase app that can provide other app makers with a great user centric approach to accessing and using Creative Commons assets.

Right now (as of 10/21/15) Adobe Voice is only available on the iPad.

The good about Adobe Voice:

  • The most amazing part of Adobe Voice is the ease of import of Creative Commons materials in terms of icons and images. There’s a certain sort of odd irony that the open nature of Creative Commons is the core feature of an extremely proprietary tool. More interoperable competitors such as Explain Everything should immediately implement this very feature in their product. If nothing else Adobe Voice is a great prototype of the things that you can do with Creative Commons.
  • Kudos to the UI designers and the programming team of Adobe Voice for making it both powerful and easy to use.
  • The frame-by-frame voice recording is great in combination with the background music and choosable theme.

The bad about Adobe Voice:

  • Only portrait orientation is allowed. This may seem like a minor point but it becomes really annoying really fast.
  • The video that Adobe Voice generates is only available on Adobe’s site. Adobe Voice is another way for Adobe to bring users into their Creative Cloud. The only in-app purchase within the app is for space on Creative Cloud. I understand that Adobe is a business and they need to make money. However, in a business context Adobe Voice is nothing more than a pretty advertisement brochure for Adobe. There is no way to export the project to any format but the proprietary one that is stored on Creative Cloud. So ironically your voice as represented by your Adobe Voice project is locked away on Adobe’s servers. There is no way to export the project into any neutral format (like Markdown). This is the biggest problem with Adobe Voice and I cannot recommend it to anyone because of this. Adobe may discontinue the project at any time and the only thing that users may be left with is yet another corporate email apology.

Detail

In this section I walk through my small video creation that you can find here: https://voice.adobe.com/a/VNo0k/ . As a technical point – I used an Audio Technica lavalier microphone – the ATR3350iS. I heard a little bit of background noise when recording and choose the ukulele background music to mask it. This brings up one issue with using the iPad with Adobe Voice – audio capture is tricky. The iPad’s microphone is really not great and you would be better served with a shotgun type of microphone. However, if you use Adobe Voice for just throwaway projects then the sound quality may not matter as much.

Starting Adobe Voice

Few log-in options and some pimping to educational organization.

Starting Adobe Voice

I used my Adobe login

I happen to have a Creative Cloud account due to some meager attempts at learning Photoshop. For my use the cost of Creative Cloud is questionable.

I used my Adobe login

Choice of presentation structure

A very nice pallette of presentation structures to choose from. I went with “Teach a Lesson”.

Choice of presentation structure

The Heart of the Interface

This is the ‘dashboard’ through which you build your presentation on a frame-by-frame basis. In a sense it’s no different than working on a PowerPoint viewgraph – but with the iPad’s tactile interface and amazing Creative Commons usage. Lets do a quick walk through the interface:

1 – Home sweet home where you can create new projects or edit old ones. You never have access to the actual project file and its contents beyond the Adobe Voice app and Creative Cloud.

2 – Built-in: Layout allows frame-by-frame image/icon/text arrangment; Themes is presentation wide changes of theme; Music is presentation wide music backgrounds (all of these will be shown later)

3 – The “share” button which is more of an “upload then share via url to video” (you can only share a link to Adobe’s site where your assembled presentation is located).

4 – Per frame presentation elements: Icon scaled to fit, or Photo, or Text. For icon/photo you can use Creative Commons search or your own (shown later)

5 – This is the magical button that records your voice for this particular frame. As long as you hold it, then your voice is recorded. Once there’s either a visual element (via (4)) and/or audio, then you’ll have the ability to play just that frame. Note that I found some weird skips when doing an audio recording that was less than a second.

6 – This is a very PowerPoint like view of your current and future presentation frames. You also have a play button on the left side to play the presentation from this point forward (across all frames). The frame names that you see are due to the “teach a lesson” structure that I choose for this presentation.

The Heart of the Interface

Icon search for ‘voice’ – 1

Icon search for 'voice' - 1

Icon search for ‘voice’ – 2

Look at the amazing Creative Commons selections!

Icon search for 'voice' - 2

Photo search options

“Find Photos” is the Creative Commons search. Have I mentioned how awesome this is?

Photo search options

Replace layout on current frame – 1

Replace layout on current frame - 1

Replace layout on current frame – 2

Replace layout on current frame - 2

Theme Choices

Note that certain themes can cause distortions of photos due to theme type. For example, the Watercolor theme caused the picture in frame 2 to be distorted in a theme appropriate way. In my case, it cut off frame 2’s picture to the point that the word ‘unique’ was not visible so I went back to Simple theme. There are more themes than what’s shown in the image.

Theme Choices

(Background) Music Choices

A very nice touch is the ability to change the volume of the background music across the whole presentation.

(Background) Music Choices

Photo orientation gone bad

There’s no way to correct a photo that is mis-oriented…at least none that I could see.

Photo orientation gone bad

CC CYA – Creative Commons Information

When choosing the ‘i’ next to a Creative Commons image or icon – this is what you get.

CC CYA - Creative Commons Information

“Share” button – 1

I choose to “share” through email. And in case you’re wondering – yes, the double quotes are there for irony.

"Share" button - 1

“Share” button – 2

"Share" button - 2

“Share” button – 3

"Share" button - 3

“Share” button – 4

Boy do I have a story for you…and in case you didn’t know it ADOBE HELPED ME MAKE IT!

"Share" button - 4

“Share” button – 5

When you click the link in the email this is what you see in your browser.

"Share" button - 5

“Share” button – 6

When playing your presentation off Adobe’s site the last frame of your presentation is auto-generated. As you can see – in the case of my presentation it gives attribution to all the Creative Commons images and icons that I used. This is a very nice way to give credit where credit is due. Big thumbs up to Adobe Voice’s designers and developers.

"Share" button - 6

Conclusion

I’m not sure if there is more to say. Adobe Voice comes so close to being amazing but it falls short through its proprietary nature. And the amazing part is the most ironic part too – the integration of Creative Commons assets. It leaves me with this mixed feeling about Adobe Voice which is reflective of how I feel about the company that brought both amazing products like Photoshop and terrible ones like Flash.

Laravel Podcast Episode 36 – Dev School – the unofficial/informal show notes

Summary

I really like the Laravel podcast. It’s a (typically) very short podcast covering both development and the Laravel framework. I like this podcast so much that I recommend it to my PHP students. It’s a nice informal conversation between seasoned PHP developers that covers the Laravel framework, PHP and other general development aspects.

The only down side of this show is that there aren’t any show notes (at least not for recent episodes). I found episode 36 to be really good in terms of pragmatic advice to those beginning to code. I think it will be really useful for my programming students which is why I decided to write a quick post providing my version of the show notes for this specific episode.

Things to note:

  • The episode is great up to time mark 41:40 (i.e. 41 minutes / 40 seconds) and then it deviates into a discussion about comfortable clothing. Feel free to skip this part. Of course if you want fashion hints from seasoned developers – then feel free to listen 🙂

  • The episode location is on the laravel podcast site. However, the linked time marks use Overcast.fm since that site provides a web player to specific time marks and it is my podcast player of choice where I listened to this episode. If you have an iPhone you should definitely give Overcast a try – it’s fully featured and free. Of course if you like it – you should donate.

  • Should you believe anything these guys say? Well – you shouldn’t believe anyone. Take it with a grain of salt and see if it makes sense. I think the perspective of this episode is useful because of the following:

    • Taylor: super backend developer and creator of the Laravel framework; very down-to-earth
    • Jeffrey: implementer of Laravel for his business (Laracasts) that involves teaching so he he has an interesting perspective on the how-to-learn-programming side
    • Matt: started as a ‘designer’ and ended as a front-end developer that now has his own company (so both a developer and business owner perspective)

Detail

I’ve arranged these show notes based on new beginner developer questions and the relevant time marks. I’ve paraphrased the questions but you’ll hear the exact question that Matt asks when you listen to the specified time marks. The usual disclaimers apply.

If I want to be a crack Laravel developer and I’m a complete beginner – where would I start? (01:30)

Time mark: 01:30

An interesting discussion of how to get from being a newbie to becoming experienced in Laravel. But it applies to any interesting framework/language.

What should I build when I’m learning? (14:35)

Time mark: 14:35

A good discussion of whether your learning project(s) should be ‘real’ and whether toy projects are the way to go (short answer: yes).

Boot camps: are they worth it? (15:38)

Time mark: 15:38

This frequently comes up in my in-person class. Up to now I didn’t have a great answer but this part of the episode covers this really well both from a what-do-you-learn perspective and from the job search will-an-employer-hire-me perspective.

What are the quintessential books every backend developer should read? (20:52)

Time mark: 20:52

This part of the podcast covers many more books than what a backend developer would use. There’s some dead air in the podcast for this question when Jeffrey speaks. Here are the books that I deciphered (I will update this if I hear back from Taylor/Matt/Jeffrey via twitter for anything that I missed).

Are there any tricks/pitfalls that you have fallen into as you were learning? (30:41)

Time mark: 30:41

This addresses the Law of the instrument question.

Knowing what you know now is there any one thing you wish you would have known or done when you began to learn programming? (32:36)

Time mark: 32:36

A long time ago I heard the “knowing what you know now” question in a Brian Tracy audio book. It applies to lots of thing including programming.

The clothing question that you can safely skip: is there any piece of clothing that you would fight about if your spouse threw it away? (41:40)

Time mark: 41:40

Thinking of my ripped gray hoodie still makes me sad.

Conclusion

Hopefully you’ve found this useful. Send me a tweet if you did.

Resources for Learning Ember.js

Overview

A while back I had decided to checkout and study a JavaScript framework. There are tons of frameworks out there – so which one to choose?

I choose Ember.js as the framework that I was going to learn. My reasoning was that I liked Yehuda Katz’s approach to software and Ember’s adoption within industry. I also liked one of Ember’s core tenants of not making breaking changes in a major version.

I worked on this for a few weeks trying to put a little bit of time each day when I could (amongst all my other personal and work responsibilities). I think that my timing was a bit off because Ember 2.0 was in the process of coming out and all documentation (whether the official documentation or books describing Ember) was off. I got little headway because I was straddling the which Ember should I study line. When asking for ideas on the best approach I got the advice of sticking to 1.13 while also getting the advice that 2.0 changes things drastically even though it’s just a removal of things.

I’ve decided to put my Ember studies on hiatus for now. I’ll revisit when it has more stable documentation-wise and I’m able to get a more solid mental model of Ember 2.0.

The purpose of this post is to list out some resources that I’ve come across. The Ember community is really friendly and really smart. If you’re looking for Ember information then this post may be useful to you. Of course the best source of Ember information is the the Ember website and the community.

What is Ember.js?

Wikipedia has a great summary of Ember’s philosophy:

What is Ember.js?

Approach

My approach was as follows:

  • Learn about the Ember community and the available resources
  • Apply what I learn to a project of interest
  • Document the highs and the lows

Wes Bos wrote a great post about how to approach the constant change in the software industry.

Ember Community and Available Resources

I like to soak in the the components of a framework. Here are some things that I found along the way.

Ember’s site

Where to begin but at the beginning – http://emberjs.com/ .

Ember's site

Twitter users worth following

I used Twitter’s ‘lists’ feature to create an Ember specific list. I found these users to be full of Emberness 🙂

Twitter users worth following

Reading the fantastic Ember newsletter

A very nice weekly newsletter from http://emberweekly.com

This newsletter give you a feel for the current happenings in Ember.

Reading the fantastic Ember newsletter

I had started reading the ember-cli 101

I came across a recommendation for https://leanpub.com/ember-cli-101 from the an Ember screencast site (https://www.emberscreencasts.com/faq). I looked around other authors and Adolfo seems to be amazingly eager to keep his book and his readers up-to-date. He certainly deserved the $35 suggested payment for his book.

I had started reading the ember-cli 101

-> ember-cli 101 (continued)

Adolfo deserves even more than $35. Have you heard of 24 x 7 support for a book? I haven’t seen that anywhere else.

-> ember-cli 101 (continued)

Ember podcasts

The Ember Weekend podcast – a nice casual weekly podcast about Ember related projects.

The Ember Land podcast – latest and greatest release and Ember evolution

Ember podcasts

Slack Channel

You can find the Slack channel on this page: http://emberjs.com/community/

Ember has a Slack channel. Lots of helpful folks and it seems flame-free for newbies though you should of course do some due diligence before asking questions.

Slack Channel

Possible places to start from

These are some things that I’ve encountered and like everything else in this post – it’s all opinion.

Where to begin?

I started reading through the ember-cli 101 book, but the problem (my problem) was that it didn’t give me the architecture/mental model for Ember.js. It looks like a great hands-on lab type of book. So I needed to find something more along architecture/mental model.

Where to begin?

Frank’s article is about architecture

Frank Treacy wrote a great article about Ember’s architecture: http://emberigniter.com/5-essential-ember-2.0-concepts/ . I read through it and although the MVC concepts make sense. The pieces he describes don’t click for me. He has some code examples but this code forms a partial application. I needed something that’s more like a whole pie rather than slices of different pies that are put next to each other.

Frank's article is about architecture

John Fisher had a good article about how he ramps new developers at his company

The article is at http://spin.atomicobject.com/2015/08/24/learn-ember-js-quickly/ . It’s a good source of information but it is geared towards experienced developers (John states this upfront).

John Fisher had a good article about how he ramps new developers at his company

-> Starting Ember Guide

While John’s Ember guide links go to 1.13, I went to the 2.0 guides since this changed just happened. Unfortunately, the 2.0 docs seemed a bit out of sync.

-> Starting Ember Guide

Ember Weekend recommendation for a book

The Ember Weekend guys have the best show notes that I have ever seen. They recommended Balint Erdi’s book.

Ember Weekend recommendation for a book

Rock and Roll with Ember.js

The “Rock and Roll with Ember.js” book can be found here: http://balinterdi.com/rock-and-roll-with-emberjs/

Looks interesting…but now that ember-cli 2.0 is out – does that mean that the book is still valid?

Sent questions to the author. Balint was extremely responsive.

Rock and Roll with Ember.js

Balint’s response to my questions

Balint also mentioned that he’s working on a 2nd edition of the book for Ember 2.

Balint's response to my questions

So…

So if I go with 2.0 – it’s still in the oven being baked and there aren’t books/materials to support Ember 2 beyond scattered tutorials here and there. So no cohesion. If I stick with 1.3, then I get the books and (per Balint) “90% it is the exact same thing as 1.13”. So get clarity with 1.13 or go with 2.0 with significant less support materials. Which one to pick?

The Ember core team is committed to “stability without stagnation” (per https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ember.js)…so understanding 1.3 should lead me into 2.0 without too much headaches. So initially I went with 1.3.

So...

Time to ask on Slack (EmberJS Community – #needhelp channel)

Time to ask on Slack (EmberJS Community - #needhelp channel)

Slack response

Slack response

Bought “Rock and Roll with Ember.js”

This was for Ember version 1.0 when I bought it a few weeks ago. As of 10/06/15 “Rock and Roll with Ember.js” has been revised to 2.0. I’ve gotten a couple of updates since that time.

Bought "Rock and Roll with Ember.js"

Conclusion

Hopefully some of the resources I mentioned are useful to you. If you’re an experienced Rails developer then Ember seems like a natural choice and it is likely to be easy to pick up. For all other developers and newbies Ember 2.0 is the way to go and up-to-date docs are almost here.