Jan 182011

It’s been a little while since I’ve read a non-technical book, so I thought I’d give this one a try. This full name of this book is DownTime – A Guide to Federal Incarceration, and that’s exactly what it is. It had an answer for pretty much anything I’d ever wondered about federal prison, and a lot of things I hadn’t even thought of.

It’s author is David Novak, who did time after pleading guilty to one count each of mail fraud and making a false distress signal. After his release he started a consulting business to help those facing federal incarceration, and writing DownTime was part of that. He has since retired, though he continues to update the book. Through internet searches I was also able to find out he was working on a documentary about life in federal prison, however he appears to have run into legal issues involving the financing.

DownTime CoverThis book was written with three audiences in mind: Lawyers whose clients are facing time in the hoosgow (as my grandmother called it), defendants, and their families. It goes through the entire process including the stages of the trial, the sentence, release, and what comes next.

Probably the biggest thing I took away from this book is that (surprise) prison stinks! Doing time there was never in my plans to begin with, but it most definitely is off the list now! All kinds of details of life in federal custody are covered. Here’s a few tidbits:

Phone Calls: Limited to 15 minutes each with a maximum of 300 minutes per month. When your call ends, go to the back of the line. If others are waiting and you dial again, you will be sorry.
Bacon: Occasionally available as a side dish.
Transport: Whether you’re serving time for jaywalking or murder, all inmates are transported as if they are in maximum security.
Conjugal Visits: There aren’t any.
Money: Inmates can spend up to $250 a month at the commissary provided they have the funds available in their account. Most prison jobs pay a few cents per hour, but your family can send you money via a lockbox facility in Iowa. This facility only accepts United States Postal Service Money Orders.
Prison Lingo: There’s a glossary of prison terms included so one can acclimate themselves quickly. More humorous entries include “Bitch Slap”, “Diesel Therapy”, and “Zoo-Zoos”.

My final thought: If you foresee federal prison in your future, I believe this book is full of useful information for both you and your family. If you’re like me and just plain curious, it’s very interesting and definitely worth your time.

Oct 152010

This was the first non-database related book that I’ve read in a long time, and its full title is actually “Dr. Deming: The American Who Taught the Japanese About Quality“. I was expecting to read about the life of W. Edwards Deming, but instead the book was more of a summary of his teachings and management methods. I was still glad I read it, as it takes an insightful look at the differences between the American and Japanese auto industries as well as management methods in general and how Deming’s methods improved both in Japan.


While I can imagine his name might be covered in business school classes, techies like myself may be in need of an introduction. William Edwards Deming was a professor, statistician, and consultant with a focus on improving quality through both statistical and managerial methods. His earlier years were spent at Western Electric’s Hawthorne Works in Cicero, Illinois, the remnants of which I pass by daily on the train ride to work. While at Western Electric, he worked with Walter Shewhart, known by many as the father of statistical quality control. Deming developed the statistical sampling methods used for the 1940 U.S. Census, and his experiences led to him being selected by the U.S. Army to help plan for the 1951 Japanese Census. In Japan, Deming gave lectures on process control through statistics and the overall idea of quality to hundreds of scientists and engineers. He also lectured top executives on how improving quality will reduce expenses while increasing both productivity and market share.

Management Style

Deming later developed his practices into a series of lectures which he was hired to give to companies all over the World. The details of his lectures that were mentioned in the book are too numerous to cover here, but many of them centered around his list of 14 principles of management. Despite being geared towards industrial and manufacturing jobs, they can be applied to any position. I drew a lot of parallels to IT jobs, and a few of them piqued my interest:

You can’t inspect quality into a product. Deming argued that no level of inspection or testing could ensure a quality product. Quality must instead be built into a product from the very beginning. Drawing parallels to software design, I’d argue he’s spot on. Unit testing and other methods can’t ensure software will be error-free, as there are too many possible situations to cover in a test environment. I’ve seen lots of buggy software that has passed unit testing because either the tests weren’t sufficient or unforeseen changes happened elsewhere that caused the product to fail.

Eliminate management by numbers and numerical goals. Substitute leadership. I once worked in a shop where upper management was extremely numbers-oriented. If a decision could in any way be made based on values calculated in a spreadsheet, they’d find a way to do that. Deming argued that true leaders will know what needs to be done in order to further the business, and wouldn’t have to depend on numeric values for justification.

Cooperation over competition. Cooperation is a fundamental ingredient that leads to improvement, even when occurring between rival companies. Cooperation between all players helps to ensure that the industry as a whole moves forward, and everyone will benefit as a result. A lot of standards (e.g. Compact Discs, the USB interface, network protocols) have come from cooperation between competitors. Similarly a lot of promising technologies have gotten off to a very rocky start when competitors didn’t cooperate – one such example is the great VCR war between Betamax and VHS. In the beginning, consumers weren’t sure which one to buy, movie studios had to produce two versions of each movie on tape, and in the end a lot of people were left with Betamax VCRs that nobody made tapes for. I think the SQL Server community is an excellent example of cooperation over competition. The community has so many professionals with a lot of great tricks up their sleeve, but rather than keep them a secret they share their knowledge freely with anyone who’s interested. The more DBAs who can effectively solve problems as a result of this knowledge, the better off the SQL Server platform will be.

Other Thoughts

Dr. Deming was born on October 14, 1900; yesterday would have been his 110th birthday.

As this book was written in 1991, it does an excellent job of showing how the quality of Japanese products (particularly automobiles) is leading to Japan straining the US auto industry, and correctly predicts that Japan’s auto sales will overtake the US in the future. The emergence of China wasn’t really on the radar 19 years ago, and I’d be interested to see what the author’s take on more current events is. I’d imagine one could successfully argue that China’s manufacturing dominance is more linked to dirt-cheap prices than to quality, which pretty much throws the book’s main argument out the window. That being said, I won’t hold a book liable for not being able to predict all aspects of the future.

May 212010

When preparing to take certification exams, I always purchase test preparation materials no matter how ready I feel that I am.  I do this for two reasons:

  • There’s no such thing as being too prepared (being a Boy Scout taught me this many times over)
  • I can be sure of what topics will be covered

As I was getting ready to take the 70-450 exam (MCITP: SQL Server 2008 Administration)  I couldn’t find any official training kits available for that test.  Even as I type this 4 months later I still see none when searching for “70-450” on amazon.com.  Figuring that something was better than nothing, I purchased the Microsoft Official Academic Course booklet.  This booklet covers not just the 70-450 exam but also 70-443, the equivalent for SQL Server 2005.

The Package

This is what you get

When I ordered this book I had in my mind what I consider to be the “standard” training kit, a 600-700 page book around 2″ thick either paperback or hardcover for $50 or $60.  With this book being nearly double the price, I wasn’t sure of what to expect.  Should you order it, you’ll actually get two books, both of which remind me of “workbooks” from high school or college.  (They even come with the college price!)  The “textbook” component is 297 pages, with a separate lab manual coming in at 110 pages.  Also included is a CD-ROM with practice exams.

The Contents

In short, the book didn’t do a whole lot for me.  Unlike the other training kit books I’ve read, most topics are covered in very little detail, and there’s usually a “pointer” to look the topic up in Books Online for further study.  Well heck, if I wanted to read BOL, I’d just sit and read it for free instead of paying a ton of money to be told to look it up anyway.  This book also has the “feature” of denoting 2008 topics from 2005 via color.  Any sections covering a 2008-only topic has blue-colored text, whereas anything about 2005 is in black.  To me, this screams that they took a book originally about 2005 and shoehorned a bunch of 2008 content in there instead of writing a new book.

The lab manual contains a dozen labs with step-by-step instructions and screenshots for accomplishing the task at hand.  Literally step-by-step instructions, such as “From the Start menu, select All Programs then Microsoft SQL Server then SQL Server Management Studio.”  Oh and most labs starts out that way, not just the first one.  I can understand the benefits of writing the labs assuming minimal knowledge of the topic so that they don’t need to be completed in order, but at the same time both tests this kit is preparing you for are considered “advanced” and have prerequisites.  If you don’t understand how to open SSMS, you probably shouldn’t be thinking about taking these tests as your time may be better spent getting familiar with SQL Server first.

The Extras

I was not at all impressed by the practice tests included on the CD.  My first clue that I probably wouldn’t find it very useful was the quality of some of the questions.  As much as I’d love to include a screenshot of one of them in particular, the license agreement prohibits me from doing so.  Here’s an extremely similar example though:

You have a 20GB database that grows by 200MB each month.  How large will the database be in 2 years?
A) 14.8
B) 24.8
C) 40.0
D) 50.0

Did you come up with 20 + (0.2 * 24) = 24.8GB, or B?  That’s what I got.  Guess what, we’re both wrong!  According to the answer and explanation, it’s actually A, because according to their answer key “20 + (0.2 * 24) = 14.8”.  That’s right folks, the 20GB database that they claim is growing actually ends up smaller 2 years from now.  Maybe they’re just using a different number system.  Sadly, this wasn’t the only question with a blatantly incorrect answer.  A little bit of proofing on the practice tests would have gone a long way.  The engineer in me also cries out for some units in the answer choices.  14.8 what?  GB? MB? Smoots?  We’ll never know, because they didn’t label it.

After completing the exam, I can also say that these questions didn’t give very good examples of what was on the test.  They helped to review what the book covered, but as I’ve already said, I wasn’t very impressed with the book either.

The Conclusion

To sum it all up, as you can see this was definitely not the best certification training kit I’ve ever laid eyes on.  I place half the blame on myself for not completely understanding what a Microsoft Official Academic Course was when I bought it.  It’s not intended to be a “do it yourself” training kit – it’s meant to be taught by an instructor.  This is stated right in the preface:

“The Microsoft Official Academic Course series is a complete program for instructors and institutions to prepare and deliver great courses on Microsoft software technologies.”

The rest of the blame I place on the book.  The style didn’t do a whole lot for me and the practice exams were particularly disappointing.  I’ve seen many textbooks that (like this one) were meant to be part of a course taught by an instructor that I’ve learned much more from on my own than this.

For purposes of full disclosure I should add that I did in fact pass the test.  I’d like to think that I knew most of the material anyway and really didn’t need this test preparation manual, but there’s really no way to tell.