The Lego Mindstorms NXT Zoo!

Animals have taken over my house. Every time I turn around something is hopping, walking or skittering across the floor. I blame No Starch Press and the LEGO company; a NXT MindStorms kit and a copy of “The LEGO NXT Mindstorms Zoo” (“Zoo”) by Fay Rhodes has my 15 year old daughter (with previously no real interest in robots or programming) building all sorts of infernal machines.

The release of the MindStorms NXT has brought forward a plethora of new possibilities and books to inform us of them. No Starch has published several. “Zoo”, subtitled “A Kid-Friendly Guide to Building Animals with the NXT Robotics System” seems well pitched at the beginner; all the models are easily built and programming the models for the basic behaviours in the book is easy and well explained.

At first impression a retail NXT buyer may suffer some disappointment, the book is designed for those who have the Educational version of the NXT with a the extra Educational Resource Kit so you will be missing some pieces required for the models. Most NXT owners, though, will have some LEGO already and may have the pieces. Rhodes does go to the trouble of telling you which pieces and where to get them. Just keep this in mind if you are intending to give the book as a gift, you may wish to track down and purchase the extra pieces and include them to avoid disappointment.

The building instructions are a good size, more easily read and understood than those from LEGO themselves which I find a little too small. I also appreciated the parts guide at the start of each model; when you might have to go hunting through other sets for a piece or an alternate the guide meant you could get this over and done with at the beginning rather than just as you are about to complete the model.

The first few models are easily built and programmed, getting progressively harder as you go through the book. None are beyond the capabilities of an even moderately experienced LEGO builder. Rhodes also includes a few sidebars showing alternative parts that can be used for some of the harder to source pieces, a nice touch and one that encouraged my daughter to work around a couple of unavailable parts when building Strutter.

All the model programming uses LEGO’s visual programming environment rather than any of the third party languages and tools. A good choice given the book’s likely readers. The model programming is a little harder to do from the instructions, though this is more due to the black and white printing and a click together programming environment than any fault by author or publisher. While I had a little difficulty my daughter’s eyes were able to cope and so I don’t see this as a significant flaw in the book. Rhodes encourages the reader/builder to use the programming environment’s ability to chunk code as a block and to develop using a bottom up approach.

For the target market the book is almost perfect, with a good tenor and an excellent choice of models to build. It would be an ideal book to buy for someone who has just gone through building the models included by LEGO in the kit. While the book is aimed at the younger end of LEGO’s suggested age range for Mindstorms don’t let that put you off purchasing a copy – it’s the perfect second book for almost any NXT builder and the “Kid-” could be easily dropped from the subtitle.

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Makers

I find a my love of “Make” magazine a strange thing. I’ve only built one thing from the magazine and two from the website, yet I enjoy enormously the tales and instructions. I read the magazine and the RSS feed religiously. Perhaps it is that I am heartened that the day of the backyard tinkerer both having fun and doing serious work are not behind us. Perhaps I enjoy knowing there are other nerds out there.

It’s therefore no surprise that I enjoyed what must be O’Reilly’s first coffee table book – “Makers”. Subtitled “All Kinds of People Making Amazing Things In Garages, Basements, and Backyards” this marvelous hard cover volume covers a large range of projects from an incredibly diverse group of people.

The tales are amazing, from a 19 year old high school student (who looks five years younger) who took atmospheric samples with a kite and a plastic drinking cup all the way through to the electrical engineer in Virginia who spent a year and $1,000 building a nuclear fusor.

In between there is a good sampling of the home enthusiast, high school students, researchers and the downright kooky. There is a good mix of design hacks, electronics, engines, useful, strange and marvelously useless that really define the home tinkerer. Here are the tales of a bunch of people who just had to “scratch their own itch.”

Most of the stories are a two page spread with a picture or two showing the project and on the facing page the text. The pictures are good quality and a mix of the entertaining and informative. For each story you get the name, occupation and location of the maker along with the cost and an estimate of the time taken to build. For most you also get a URL where you can go for more information.

The book is attractive, well laid out and informative with only a few minor gripes in the quality of the editing – an example “You can instantly change the message at any point instantly by typing a new one and pressing Enter.” The paper stock is typical of a coffee table book, a high weight semi-gloss, and the design uses some good looking easily read fonts in a wide open layout. It looks and feels marvelous.

Finding a project is easy, the Contents page lists each of the 100 projects and their makers, and the back has an alphabetical index of the makers. O’Reilly have a page for the book though it gives little real detail, the Amazon page is more useful and informative. This is another gentle reminder for the people at O’Reilly that the usefulness of these PR pages has been dropping lately.

My one serious complaint is that the book is light on details for both the projects and the makers themselves. Since most have some sort of a website about their projects I was most upset by the lack of detail about the people – I’d have enjoyed knowing more about their process, history and motivations. As it is I am left wondering since most seem loathe to talk about themselves on their site. A good length interview with each would have improved the book enormously, though probably required shortening the list of projects. Personally, I would have preferred it. As it is we are left with a book that is indeed a coffee table book – just that little bit too superficial but attractive and probably worth buying nonetheless. I give it four stars because of the lack of depth, on every other criteria it is five. It is full of tales and inspiration.

O’Reilly’s biggest mistake was in the release date for this book. It was probably just a little too late to get into everyone’s Christmas list, but it may be just the thing for that last minute gift or to soak up the gift certificate from Aunt Margaret.

iPod Fan Book

by Yasukuni Notomi

iPod Fan Book

The first impression you get of O’Reillys iPod Fan Book is of the packaging. A small volume (about the same height as the iPod and twice the width) it comes with a half-height wrap that has the title and author on the front and the bar code, price and a short contents on the back. Take this off and you have a full-size cover with all the simple elegance of the white iPod itself. The front features the wheel of a 4G iPod and the back has just the Apple logo and “iPod” in Apple’s distinctive typeface below it. Remove this second cover and you have a book with a simple design of grey with a white border, the back is blank and the front has the title and the subtitle “Go everywhere with iPod” in small type.

This concentration on design flows through the rest of the book. It is visually stunning; at the same time, effort has been made to make the design useful. The pages are visually tabbed to make it easy to navigate the seven chapters. Each chapter is tabbed in a different color reflected through use of that color within the chapter. Full color pictures and screen dumps add to the legibility and usability of the book.

This book is also full of useful information for the newcomer to the iPod. A small amount is covered in the documentation you get with the iPod, but a great deal is not. Apart from a useful chapter on accessories, the book focuses on methods of getting the best from an iPod and how to organise your music.

To sum up this book: it is a little more style than substance and falls short of being the ideal book for all newcomers to the iPod (and even less for experienced users). On the other hand, the style makes the information that is provided readily accessible for all. I’d say this is the perfect companion to an iPod for a teen-age girl and if my 12-year-old daughter was getting the mini she has been hinting for, a copy of this would be included. (I expect that anyone who spent more than ten minutes deciding on the colour of their mini would probably love the elegance and style of this thin volume.) The low price makes it a great impulse buy or stocking stuffer.

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Hackers and Painters: Big Ideas from the Computer Age

Paul Graham has delivered final proof that he is a marvelous essayist with his volume of fairly diverse writings, Hackers & Painters. I first came across his writing with his article, “A Plan For Spam,” on using Bayesian filtering to block spam and found it a well written and informative technical article. I next came across him some time later when he wrote an essay on his web site entitled “Hackers & Painters,” and once again it was well written, informative and (more importantly for an essayist) thought provoking. I was excited to hear he had published a volume of writing and pleased with the copy I received.

Literature has a long history of the essayist; since those famous theses on the church door at Wittenberg a well written and thought provoking essay on a topic has provided power and focus for important discussions. Graham has either learnt or discovered the important points in writing a good essay; brevity, quality writing and thought.

In this volume Graham covers a range of topics, though all are, understandably, centered on computers. Why nerds are unpopular at school, and what this demonstrates about our eduction system; why program in Lisp; the importance of “startups”, programming languages and web development are all touched on. At the same time he covers topics less techno-centric such as heretical thinking and speech. wealth creation and unequal income distribution.

I found myself disagreeing with him often while reading the book, though every time I did I found his argument compelling. I agree with Andy Hertzfeld, quoted on the back cover of the book, “He may even make you want to start programming in Lisp.” Graham is politically more conservative and right wing than me, he is also a fervent supporter of Lisp, while I’m a C and Perl advocate. It is telling that at no time did I find myself railing at his views, rather I was reading his arguments and giving them meme space. A good sign of a writer that does not indulge in unnecessary or extreme polemic.

Graham also tends to concentrate on a single point in each essay, allowing for both good coverage and a brief essay. Where he covers a larger context, such as high school education in “Why Nerds Are Unpopular” that opens the book, he seems to focus on just one or two good points of discussion.

The title essay is the second in the collection and provides an interesting look at hacking and some lessons we can learn by analogy to the work and life of Rennaissance painters, particularly in how it is done and how it can be funded. The third, “What You Can’t Say” is social commentary on heretical thinking. Four, “Good Bad Attitude” is on the benefits of breaking rules, both in life and hacking. Five, “The Other Road Ahead”, is an excellent look at web based software and why it offers benefits to both user and developer with Graham examining some lessons he learnt while building ViaWeb. Six, “How To Make Wealth”, is a look at becoming wealthy and how a ‘startup’ might be the best way to do it. The seventh, “Mind The Gap”, is an argument that we should not worry so much about ‘unequal wealth distribution’ and why it might actually be a good thing. From this list, and a look at the table of contents (available as a PDF on the O’Reilly page for the book), you can see that Graham covers a wide spectrum while never straying from topics he knows.

If I was forced to identify a weakness in this book it may well be that Graham does not evince doubt or uncertainty in his arguments, on a few occasions he may admit to a narrow view or knowledge but doubt or uncertainty don’t seem to enter his field of vision while he writes. This coupled with a single viewpoint makes the book less than all-encompassing in discussion. However, I must admit that it is almost impossible to be anything more with a single author and Graham may well be more honest than others who pick and choose the alternatives they present.

Most of the essays are available at Graham’s website, but frankly I am a fan of dead trees and appreciated that this book could be read on the bus or in bed. If you would prefer something you can read on the bus then a PDF of the second chapter, “Hackers & Painters” is available from the O’Reilly page.

I would recommend this book to anyone who wants to think about a number of topics important to the culture of our tiny corner of the world, computers and the net, while not ignoring the rest.

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