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26 December 2011

One Click by Richard L.Brandt

The Amazon effect. Hard to ignore. It's already led to significant changes on our local high streets. Bookshops have almost vanished, and those that remain struggle for profits. Pavement footfall on a cold winter's day has been replaced by mouse clicks by the fireside.

Richard Brandt's excellent book brings to life the story of Jeff Bezos - the man, the business executive and the visionary. And it explains in wonderful details how Amazon grew from the humblest of beginnings, to be mentioned in the same breath as Google and Apple.

There are fascinating insights into Bezos's early life. It's easy to see how his self-reliant, NASA-influenced, book-filled upbringing led to such high academic achievements and a love of technology. A boundless self belief helped sling shot him into a highflying executive career and ultimately to become one of the world's most influential entrepreneurs.

Yet, it was the early Internet, and its 2,300% yearly growth, that really caught his attention. A huge business opportunity just waiting to be tapped. The result was a classic US West Coast startup story, beginning as it did with a garage, one computer, two employees, a wife and a short course on book selling.

Amazon's stellar growth was only possible by forgoing all notion of profits, cutting non-essential costs, operating with a can-do attitude and attracting the right kind of investors. A strategy that resulted in a stock market floatation after only two years, those original $18 shares yielding a company valuation of $429 million. Only one year later the shares were $105, raising the valuation to in excess of $5 billion.

Despite the problems caused by the dotcom crash, Amazon expanded into CDs, DVDs, games and a host of other marketplaces - a trend that continues today with their wildly successful Kindle ebook devices. Yet, like any natural entrepreneur Bezos is always looking for the next big thing. The groundbreaking Amazon Web Services, which provide hosting services for a multitude of other companies (even some competitors), only confirms his impressive vision and boldness.

Amazon's phenomenal success, and his own billionaire status, has allowed Bezos to indulge in very personal projects. The Blue Origin company - with its aim of safe, affordable, commercial space flights - has its roots in those early childhood dreams of space exploration and NASA achievements.

On reading this book, it's clear the success of Amazon is down to Jeff Bezos's highly individual thinking, customer-obsessed focus, unconventional management style, unshakable self-belief and undoubted entrepreneurial skills - with an occasional slice of lady luck thrown in.

It's also clear Richard Brandt has the gift of conveying considerable amounts of information with splendid clarity, while maintaining a satisfying pace and sense of movement. I for one will be reading more of his work.

18 December 2011

PHP & MySQL: The Missing Manual by Brett McLaughlin

Right from the start PHP & MySQL: The Missing Manual assumes the typical reader will have no knowledge of PHP or SQL. Instead it suggests they are likely to be an HTML, CSS and JavaScript programmer, wishing to explore server-side development. As such, at least a basic understanding of HTML is a prerequisite.

At close to 500 pages there's plenty of space to cover each new topic in detail. Detail that includes numerous images, code examples, tips, notes and advisory warnings. All supplemented with wise best practice advice and informative background information.

Despite the book's length a clean layout and bold page headers ensure flicking back and forward to specific areas of interest is undemanding and rapid. As the content is intended to be consumed in a practical, hands-on manner, it's good to find a complete set of code examples available for download at the Missing Manuals website.

Brett has a light and entertaining style of writing, which he combines with a gentle wit. New information is presented in a fluid and coherent manner, even when introducing some of the more complex topics.

Structurally the book's thirteen chapters are divided into four main sections. While each section has its own well defined domain, they join together to form a smooth, interactive journey. A journey to assemble real-world PHP and MySQL-based web pages from scratch.

The first section successfully guides you through the basics. As you'll have to download the necessary software, instructions are provided for both Microsoft Windows and Apple Mac. This is followed by a step-by-step overview of the PHP and SQL languages, and the MySQL database product.

Located in the middle two sections are numerous web page examples, each designed to explore a specific element of server-side development. By the end of these sections you'll have the knowledge to create key elements for a typical website, and be able to dynamically retrieve, display and manage database-stored content. Any page you've created can be subsequently modified to address your own design requirements.

Important topics such as error handling are not only included, but covered in some depth. And Brett doesn't shirk from the more complex areas, such as regular expressions and managing database blobs (binary objects). However, this book isn't intended to be a PHP or SQL language reference and doesn't attempt to cover object-oriented programming or other advanced PHP techniques.

The final section covers the creation of a secure user authentication page - another essential website element. It builds upon the knowledge learned in earlier chapters, while introducing new topics such as authentication headers, credential validation, encryption, cookies and user sessions.

In summary, if you're after an excellent, straightforward, yet comprehensive introduction to web server application development, this certainly hits the mark.

10 December 2011

Ted Hughes

The airwaves have been full of tributes to the larger than life poet Ted Hughes, after a memorial was unveiled in Westminster Abbey's Poets' Corner. Numerous poets, writers and celebrities offered their thoughts on the man and his work. Some performed readings of the poem fragments that touched them the most.

However, nothing can match a reading by the man himself. His voice has an immense and immediate effect. He spoke directly from the soul. Words hung in the air, visualisations whirled around the mind. The poem breathes; it exists. It's a feat that can only be approximated by others, with varying degrees of effectiveness.

Many say Hughes had such an immense presence he could hush a room simply by walking in. Nevertheless, it's his powerful, highly original voice that's burned into our consciousness; words that resonate inside our soul.

But, that notion brings both joy and sadness.

Hearing someone else read a poem I find there's something missing. It's the same if I read a passage myself. An extra dimension has been lost. It doesn't have the gravitas, authority and pure force of energy it needs and demands. Hughes lived those words; the delight, the pleasure, the heartache and the suffering.

Sadly, Ted Hughes cannot read to us any more. His words will always have the capacity to unleash a torrent of emotions and imagery. But I for one will seek out a reading by the man himself.

3 December 2011

The Bad Beekeepers Club by Bill Turnbull

Does the thought of beekeeping arouse your inquisitive side? Then this may be the ideal book for you.

Inside is a series of lighthearted and amusing tales describing the ups and downs of gaining entry to the beekeepers club.

Along the way you'll discover a multitude of things you never knew about bees, bee-behaviour, swarms, hives, honey, wax, pollen and propolis - not to mention the mindset and endless paraphernalia of a totally smitten apiarist.

By the end you'll also know quite a bit about Bill himself, including his ability to balance family life with both a beekeeping obsession and a demanding role as a globe-trotting TV presenter.

Becoming a beekeeper isn't a journey for the faint-hearted, but one that requires dedication, commitment and a certain level of bravery. And, as the passion takes hold, it's a journey that demands ever growing amounts of time, money and garden shed space - not to mention considerable patience and understanding from other family members.

If you're looking for a step-by-step guide to beekeeping or an in-depth look at bee biology, it's not the book you need. But if you'd like to be entertained by a collection of captivating bee-related stories, I can heartily recommend this book.