July 22, 2009

Web 2.0 Architectures: What entrepreneurs and information architects need to know

Web 2.0 Architectures is written by three authors and it shows. The book sways between discussion and dissection - addressing entrepreneurs, curious technologists and architects. It's inconsistent in its treatment of the material it chooses to add to its scope. Fortunately, this doesn't mean the book isn't useful to read or fairly enjoyable in parts.

Early on the authors take on the considerable task of explaining Web 2.0. They use an approach in which 1.0 applications are compared to their 2.0 successors or competitors. This approach does not work for several reasons.

The 1.0 application on display has evolved since Tim O'Reilly picked the contrasting applications a while ago. So there is no good benchmark to use. The authors point this out in several places, which makes the whole comparison more kludgey. Instead of an architectural analysis that is crisp, the comparisons devolve into feature discussions. So what defines Web 2.0? A set of features, the approach, its execution? The resulting discussion doesn't really come out and clarify Web 2.0 any more or less than available material on the Internet.

However some central themes to emerge in this discussion that are put to good use later.

The early discussions in this book are not dilineated from a technical perspective. There is no clear architectural model or patterns that are used to drive the explanations. Sure architectural patterns are listed, but they are not defined to begin with. So you have to go read up about them or have the knowledge beforehand. In either case, you may already end up knowing enough that the book may not be adding value.

The second half of the book presents a reference architecture for Web 2.0. Its a decent chapter, but not comprehensive. I was very unclear about how to utilize the information that was presented in Chapter 5.

Chapter 7, which talks about Web 2.0 patterns at a deeper level, is easily the most enjoyable chapter of the book. Like it predecessors, its not comprehensive, but it covers important ground.

Each Web 2.0 pattern is explained very well. There is a paragraph on the context in which the pattern should be utilized. There is material on the pattern's static structure and dynamic behavior and notes on implementation (these are a little thin for some patterns). A nice section on gotchas (called consequences) is also available.

The patterns covered in this book are:

  • Service Oriented Pattern
  • Software as a Service
  • Participation-Collaboration
  • Asynchronous Particle Update
  • Mashup
  • Rich User Experience
  • Synchronized Web
  • Collaborative Tagging
  • Declarative Living and Tag Gardening
  • Semantic Web Grounding
  • Persistent Rights Management
  • Structure Information
Some patterns are a little broad - for example, is Rich User Experience really a pattern or an expectation in the Web 2.0 context that consists of serveral, constantly evolving, well-understood patterns that encompass graphic design, usability and dynamic web programming? Fortunately, regardless of the approach, the resulting discussions in this chapter are all good ones.

Web 2.0 Architectures is a book is fairly easy to read - its written in an accessible way. There are some errors in a couple of diagrams, but for the most part the accompanying figures are spartan and adequate.

June 19, 2009

Elliot Jay Stocks' Sexy Web Design

"Let's start working" says Elliot Jay Stocks at the end of Chapter 2, and I really enjoyed this book as soon as Chapter 3 began. But more on that later.

Sexy Web Design: Creating Interfaces that Work (SWD) is described as a book for a web designer - anyone 'responsible for the look, the feel, or the mood of a web site'. But SWD isn't a tutorial - wisely so - because this area is too vast to cover in any one book. Instead it explores the areas a web designer needs to know about in order to become successful at his or her craft. Particularly it focuses on those areas that you need to zero in on in order to create eye-catching web sites. In essence, SWD is a sitemap for web designers.

The first few chapters of SWD are spent explaining what sexy web design is and why its important. A few examples are used to embellish the points. Its the least compelling section of the book although I liked the idea behind dedicating a chapter to research (Chapter 2) - essentially guiding designers to look for inspiration in many places.

Happily as soon as Chapter 3 begins, Stocks' rolls up his sleeves - so to say - and goes about telling us what a good web designer needs to know - how to define the structure of a site using sitemaps, how to define pages using a wiremap and how to go from sketches to templates. In the next chapter, the pages are brought together under the topic of Navigation and Interaction. Stocks covers the different types of navigation that a designer needs to know about. He covers forms and audio-visual content.

All through these two chapters, Stocks' simply describes the landscape. The idea behind this approach seems to be that once a reader is familiar with what they need to know, they can decide which topic they need to know more about.

Chapter 5 is about aesthetics such as fixed width versus fluid width layouts, colors, imagery and typography. There is some coverage on how to develop consistency and make your site pop through the use of contrast.

Sexy Web Design is best oriented for web-savvy users and site builders who need to get sophisticated about site design quickly and efficiently. You'll need to supplement this material with a lot of more in-depth information. But reading the book is a great way to kick start the exploration.

Stocks explains how to do sitemaps, wireframes, design of pages, navigation and interaction in Chapters 3 and 4. These are great for identifying areas you can go dig into later - depending on where you need most expertise.

In one long Chapter (5), Stocks tackles aesthetics - covering topics such as fluid width versus fixed width layouts, color, imager and typography.

As a sitemap of web design, Stocks' book is very valuable. You will need to find additional material for deeper dive into the topics covered here.

Sexy Web Design: Creating Interfaces that Work is published by sitepoint

February 11, 2009

Book Review: The Manga Guide to Databases by Mana Takahashi

In The Manga Guide to Databases (TMGD), Ruruna is the princess of a faraway land called the Kingdom of Kod and she has a bit of a problem. Her parents have left her in charge of Kod’s famous fruit export business. And managing the data related to the prices and sales is getting the good princess all down.

TMGD is somewhat curiously structured. It’s not as much a guide to databases as it is an introduction to relational databases. Instead of explaining database concepts and the utility behind it clearly, author Mana Takahashi takes an early dip into database constructs such as normalization and Structured Query Language (SQL).

Because Takahashi gets into database nitty gritty early, she doesn’t have time to build a really good introduction to her characters or the core benefits behind building databases. You have to come convinced of the utility of databases before you read the book.

Having said that, once the characters have grown on you – the story cruises along nicely and even the hard stops by way of text chapters don’t derail it. The narrative is not innovative but it has a mythical charm to it.

To organize her fruit business, Princess Rurana has help from her childhood aid Cain. Things pick up when Cain opens a mystery book sent by the king by mail. The book is, conveniently, a tutorial on databases. But it comes with its own instructor – a Tinker Bell like fairy called Tico who is only visible to Cain and Rurana.

Tico quickly convinces her students that relational databases are the way to go. She teaches them how to build a database and then how to normalize it. Soon Rurana and Cain are designing databases. By chapter 4, they are knee deep into SQL (which is the strongest and most readable chapter of the book).

The book is wrapped up by a couple of chapters that are more in line with what one might expect from a Manga Guide. Chapter 5 talks about some operational aspects like Security, Optimization, ACID transactions, Disaster Recovery and Query Optimization. The final chapter explains how databases are used in every day applications.

TMGD is illustrated by Shoko Azuma, who relies on classic Manga sketches and emanata to evoke emotions. TMGD is translated from Japanese and because of the way Azuma has rendered it, clean up and translation is cleaner than say The Manga Guide to Statistics. But I did wish that emanating text had been a bit more dynamic instead of static.

All in all, TMGD is a fun way to learn about databases and core concepts, but it’ll require a few leaps of faith.

January 25, 2009

Book Review: RESTful .NET by Jon Flanders

As Jon Flanders explains early on in his enjoyable book, Representational State Transfer (REST) is a set of guidelines on how to architect your web applications. Because it is tightly aligned with HTTP, architectures that follow the principles of REST are able to hook into a number of benefits that come built into the technologies that surround the web.

Flanders delves into REST briefly, but he does it well enough that you understand its value even if you haven't consumed the groundbreaking book RESTful Web Services.

The transition to programming REST using .NET is just as nicely handled. Windows Communication Foundation is a sprawling technology precisely because it is a model that covers a wide variety of programming paradigms (it supports a multitude of protocols like messaging, HTTP, SOAP, etc).

There is a quick tutorial on implementing HTTP services using WCF - which serves to remind us that WCF isn't only tightly coupled to SOAP. The rest of the book is divided up into chapters that zero in on specific implementation using WCF: Read-only services, Read/Write services, RESTful services and Feeds. Flanders also covers both server side implementation and client-side consumption of the services. There is coverage of Ajax and Silverlight clients and a short chapter on using WCF Workflow to deliver the REST services.

The value of the book is that it zeroes in on the essentials and provides very lean tutorials

RESTful .NET's biggest strength is that it is concise, clear and lean. To that point, you need the basics of HTTP, SOAP, WCF, XML, C# and (briefly) ASP in place to fully appreciate the book. The most valuable chapter for me was the one in which Flanders covers programming feeds. But there is enough diversity in terms of types of constructs implemented, that you'll find something of value here.

Highly recommended if you are a Windows Web programmer and have a growing interest in REST.

January 06, 2009

Book Review: The Manga Guide to Statistics

Shin Takahashi’s The Manga Guide to Statistics A Manga Guide to Statistics contains – as advertized – both Manga and Statistics. What exactly is Manga? It’s a style of drawing that was birthed and refined in eponymous Japanese comics. Its characterized by a heightened display of emotions (think: plenty of emanata), hip characters and dramatic framing. But above all, Manga characters look cute – often achieved by drawing large eyes that dominate a face and denoting the nose and mouth with minimal lines.

There is plenty of cute in Takahashi’s book – courtesy of crackerjack illustrator Iroha Inoue.

The Manga Guide to Statistics has a loose plot that drives exploration of the subject of Statistics. Rui is a schoolgirl, prone to flights of romantic fancy and subject to bouts of panic around Statistics. One fine day her father brings a colleague home – the dashing Mr. Igarashi (characterized by bright eyes and wispy, long hair). Igarashi gives Rui an informal introduction to Statistics. And in an effort to win Igarashi’s heart, Rui pesters her father to arrange for lessons for her.

This her surprised father does dutifully. Only Rui’s instructor is the geeky Mamoru Yamamoto. This setback only spurs Rui on to really focus on mastering the subject. Tremendous lessons ensue that introduce Rui to concepts like Frequency Distribution, Mean, Median, Standard Deviation, Estimation Theory, Cross Tabulatiions, Normalization, Standard Scores, Probability, Corelation and Hypothesis. Will Rui learn Statistics and win the love of Mr. Igarashi? Can Mamoru keep up with Rui and help her complete her mission? Hey, is Mamoru really that bad looking?

The Manga Guide to Statistics has lovely, crackling illustrations. Inoue keeps the reader engaged with panels that burst with energy, drama queen depictions of mood and spanking fashion and style. Often a lot of text and numbers enter the comic because the nature of the subject demands it. But overall, you don’t lose the accessibility of a comic book.

In what I thought was a stroke of genius, Takahashi shows us how to apply the concepts in the book using Microsoft Excel. This makes a lot of sense because Excel is either widely accessible or functionally mirrored by other software (such as say: Google Docs).

The inherent accessibility of its comic book format makes The Manga Guide to Statistics an able introduction to Statistics as well as a handy reference for those who want to revisit the subject.

May 30, 2008

Harald Mante: The Photograph

Harald Mante's The Photograph (Rocky Nook, 2008) - translated from German by Thomas C Campbell III is my first text on picture composition and design. I've read books about the technologies involved with photography and books that explain why a particular photograph really works.

But Mante's book explains the principles behind good photographs. And the value of this is that it gets you past understanding why a particular picture looks good and into how you can replicate the success of that photograph.

How exactly does Mante go about doing it? He breaks his large book down into the basic elements of interest in a picture. There are five major sections on photo composition in the book dealing with points, lines, shapes, universal contrasts and color contrasts.

Take the first section on points. Mante starts by discussing pictures with a single point of interest and how its position can change the perception of a photograph. Then he introduces additional points, carefully explaining how collections and groups adds perception options to the composition.

All through his text, Mante deploys copious photographs - some almost thumbnail size. I found this to be hugely useful because it gave me lots of data points for each of the principles described by Mante. There are multiple elements at play in each of the pictures, but instead of explaining all of them at once, you tend to focus only on the ones being described. This allows the reader to understand the mechanics contributed to the picture by the immediate principle alone.

In the next section Mante explores the use of lines (real and perceived) in photographs. By the time the next section rolls around on shapes, the book really pops because you can see how the various elements of points, lines and shapes are interacting within a photograph.

What I enjoyed most in the final two sections on contrast is that while the discussion can tend to be obtuse, Mante offers a lot of practical details. In one instance Mante talks about how wide-angle lenses and long-angle lenses contribute to contrast in a picture. We all know that happens but Mante articulates it in a way that it is reusable by photographers.

All wide-angle lenses support the impression of spaciousness on the two-dmensional surface by exaggerating the perspective and the sizes of the objects between the foreground and background. Long focal-length lenses can convey impressions of depth only by contrasting the sharply reproduced detail in the plane of focus with the blurred, out-of-focus background or by showing shapes that overlap ambigously.

This level of practical details is excellent.

I had some minor problems with the book. While I appreciated the photographs in both quality, volume and relevance - I wish they had been captioned exclusively to drive home the underlying principle. Because Mante describes theory, the book tends to be difficult to read in long stretches - so I would recommend keeping aside enough time to absorb the information in it.

April 07, 2008

Book Review: The Digital Photography Companion

Derrick Story's book - The Digital Photography Companion - is sized conveniently enough, like a slightly oversize mass market paperback. And the intent is obvious. Story wants to create a manual that is easy to take along with you pretty much wherever you go (hint: vacations). He follows it up by writing in a conversational style and includes lots of bright color pictures that further increases the reader's engagement.

Story covers both digital SLRs and compact cameras. And in an excellent opening chapter, he explains the major differences between the two. Some part of the audience for this book might find the information on image sensors to be too technical - and for them there is enough practical advice to help choose a camera. But for those looking for a more in-depth explanation, this chapter is a great hook.

Right after that Story lays out the features and functionalities of digital cameras in alphabetical order. This I felt put the book in camera manual territory. I own an old Canon Powershot G3 and while Story was describing the features (somewhat mechanically) I felt his book offered no more value than my manual (which is very well written by the way and a text that this book squarely competes with).

Once we are past this alphabetical cataloging, the book really starts to shine. How does it do that? By offering lots of practical advice on how to create take great pictures, sometimes by replicating studio settings with low-tech contraptions. For example, Story shows you how to devise your own light meter, shoot in rain, bounce light off household reflective surfaces and trick your camera's white balance.

Besides being very useful, these tips also offer terrific insights into how the digital camera works. It enhances your understanding of the instrument you are working with.

Later the book also contains a useful chapter on how to post-process your pictures using software. Story covers a number of popular packages such as Apple iPhoto, Adobe Photoshop and Lightroom and Microsoft Expression Media. I would have really liked to see Story cover some web based image editing applications in order to get in touch with Web 2.0 technologies. There is also coverage of printing your pictures - a detail in the book that I really appreciated. And instead of trying to cover printer features and explain how to choose a printer in depth, Story keeps the focus on the camera by creating a short table with specific printer recommendations for different types of users.