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 Tuesday, July 28, 2009
More on journalistic integrity: Sys-Con, Ulitzer, theft and libel

Recently, an email crossed my Inbox from a friend who was concerned about some questionable practices involving my content (as well as a few others'); apparently, I have been listed as an "author" for SysCon, I have a "domain" with them, and that I've been writing for them since 10 January, 2003, including two articles, "Effective Enterprise Java" and "Java/.NET Interoperability".

Given that both of those "articles" are summaries from presentations I've done at conferences past, I'm a touch skeptical. In fact, it feels like those summaries were scraped from conferences I've done in the past, and I certainly don't remember ever giving Sys-Con (or any other conference) the right to reprint my presentation as an article.

Then it turns out that apparently I'm not the only one suffering this problem. Go. Read that article, then come back. I promise, I'll wait.

(Seriously, go read it.)

Wow. Just... wow. If even half of what Aral's story is true (and I'm inclined to believe at least part of it, given that he's done some pretty meticulous documentation of at least his side of the story), then this is beyond outrageous, and squarely into "completely unethical".

Now, I'll be the first to admit, I've not heard back from Sys-Con about any of this, so if I get any sort of response I'll be sure to update this blog post. But...

Calling anyone a "homosexual son of a bitch", "terrorist" or "fag" is so unbelievably offensive it staggers the mind. Normally, I'd be a bit hesitant to just give either party the benefit of the doubt on that one, given just how ludicrous the accusation sounds, but Aral includes screen shots of the articles, which in of itself lends an air of credibility to the accusation—either Aral is the world's worst Turkish translator, or Sys-Con's translation into Turkish is a bit on the "edgy" side, or Sys-Con really did call him that. Which implies that whichever way this goes, doesn't look good for one of the two parties. But even if we leave that to one side....

Sys-Con is playing with fire by collecting my content and claiming me as an author. Sys-Con never contacted me about becoming a part of their "Ulitzer" website. They never asked me for permission to reprint my articles, though, I'll admit, I can't find where the articles actually exist, nor links to the articles, so maybe they didn't, actually, reprint the article, but just link to them... except I can't find the links to the articles or the presentations, either. They never asked me for an updated bio or photo, and in fact, they pretty clearly grabbed both bio, photo and "summaries" from an old location, because that bio lists me as a DevelopMentor instructor (which I haven't been for two years or so), and as living in Sacramento, CA (which I haven't been for about three years or so). Let me be very clear about this: I do not write for Sys-Con Media. I never have. They have never asked permission to reuse any of the content I have produced. I am appalled at being included in such a fashion.

Note that I'm not opposed to being linked to, mind you—if I put material on my blog, I generally expect (and hope) that people will link to it, and I don't demand permission or even notification when it happens. But to claim that I've written material for an entity does mean I expect to at least be asked if it's OK to use my likeness, name, or material. No such request was ever made of me, so far as I can remember or find (through my own email archives, which stretch back to 2001).

And I can say that I've thought about this issue before, from the other side of the story—back when I was editor at TheServerSide.NET, we began a "blogger's program" that would take interesting blog posts from around the Internet and "collect" them in some fashion for TSS.NET readers. Originally, the thought was to simply reproduce the content directly on our site, and I hated that idea, for the same reasons as I dislike it when somebody does it to me. Regardless of the licensing model the blog entries are published under, to me, a publication or media firm owes the author at least the right of refusal, and a chance to be notified when their material is reused. (In the end, we chose to ask authors if we could reproduce their material in the program, and we never (to my knowledge) had an author refuse.) It doesn't take a real rocket scientist's brain to figure out that asking permission is never a bad thing to do if you want to maintain good will with your sources of material.

This is an open and public request to Sys-Con media: either contact me about using my name, likeness and material on your website, or remove it. (I have emailed their editorial and asked them to acknowledge receipt of my request.)

In the meantime, I will be making every effort to make sure that other content-producers I know are aware of Sys-Con's practices, so they can act as they see fit.

If you are a reader, and find this distasteful as well, then I suggest you follow some of the suggestions mentioned in Aral's blog post:

    • Tell everyone you know about what Sys-Con is doing (but don't link to them so as not to give them Google Juice). If tweeting, leave out the http:// bit so that your URL is not automatically made into a link.
    • Sys-Con feeds upon the work of authors and speakers to live. If all authors had their content removed from Sys-Con and Ulitzer, they would not have pages to put ads on. So go through their list of authors and notify the ones you know. If they are unaware that they're listed there, they will most likely want themselves removed. Update: I've created a single list of all Sys-Con's Ulitzer authors. More information and the full list are in this post. The original list of authors is at http://www.ulitzer.com/?q=authors. You can ask for your Ulitzer/Sys-Con author page to be removed by emailing editorial@sys-con.com.
    • Contact their advertisers and tell them what you think of their association with Sys-Con.
    • If you know any speakers speaking at Sys-Con events, make sure they know the kind of company they are associating themselves with. Do the same with anyone you know who is thinking of attending one of their events. Raise awareness about their events at your place of work.
    • Make sure Google knows that Sys-Con/Ulitzer is spamming Google with tons of duplicate content. Report them on Google's spam page for posting duplicate content. According to their terms and conditions, Google should stop indexing Sys-Con/Ulitzer. See this comment for a template you can use when reporting them.
    • Make sure Google News knows that they are syndicating libelous articles from Sys-Con. Use the Google News Report an Issue form to report the following articles: http://internetvideo.sys-con.com/node/1017038, http://internetvideo.sys-con.com/node/1028923, http://www.sys-con.com/node/1035252, http://air.ulitzer.com/node/1038383, http://openwebdeveloper.sys-con.com/node/1039556, and http://cloudcomputing.sys-con.com/node/1047589

Meanwhile, I'm going to be talking about this to everybody I know at Microsoft, desperately seeking to find out which department engaged the advertising with Sys-Con, and looking to convince them that they don't need this kind of press or association. Ditto for the contacts (far fewer in number) I have with IBM, and any other Sys-Con advertiser I find.


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Tuesday, July 28, 2009 6:58:00 PM (Pacific Daylight Time, UTC-07:00)
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 Wednesday, July 15, 2009
What is "news", and what is "unethical"?

This post from TechCrunch crossed my attention inbox today, and I find myself quite flummoxed on the subject of how I think I should react.

Assume you have managed, through no overt work on your part (meaning, you didn't explicitly solicit, ask, or otherwise endeavor to obtain), to get ownership of "hundreds of confidential corporate and personal documents" for a company. Assume further that these documents are genuine—there is little to no chance that they could have been forged or fabricated. The documents span a range of sensitivity, from documents that are "somewhat embarrassing to various individuals, but not otherwise interesting", to documents that "show floorplans and security passcodes to get into the Twitter offices", to documents "showing financial projections, product plans and notes from executive strategy meetings". In other words, documents that yes, could create a certain amount of havoc to the corporate entity in question, could embarrass individuals within (and not within) that company, and documents that could lead to a competitive advantage for the entity's competitors.

Now also assume, for the purpose of the discussion, that you are an entity whose business model or raison d'etre is to publish—you are a blogger, a "social networking maven", a media outlet, whatever.

Is it unethical to publish these documents? Is it simply trolling for hits? Is there a "journalistic responsibility" to publish this material?

The people from TechCrunch feel like they have a right/responsibility to publish at least some of the documents, and are unswayed by the arguments in the blog's comments about the morality of such a move, including such comments as "This is an a**hole move" and "there's still an appearance of lapse of ethics here" (and that's just within the first half-dozen comments or so". What is particularly interesting is the response from (someone I assume to be) one of the blog's owners:

lol. if we only posted things that companies gave us permission to post this would be a press release site and none of you would be here. News is stuff someone doesn’t want you to write. The rest is advertising.

This comment disturbs me on several levels—it's only news if it's "stuff someone doesn't want you to write"? That's a pretty shallow and narrowly-defined sense of the term, if you ask me, and it puts periodicals like National Enquirer and Star magazines on the same level as the New York Times and CNN. (Although, and I'll freely admit this, having just come through the Michael Jackson media blitz, sometimes it feels difficult to tell the difference between all four of those.)

At the same time, though, it's clear from our own history that journalism has served the public good by shining a bright light into shady corners that some powers-that-be would prefer left unexposed. The abuses described by Upton Sinclair in the turn-of-the-century factories, the rampant sexual harassment in the military exposed by the Tailhook scandal, and certainly the outright blatantly violent suppression of Civil Rights movement of the 60's in the South were all shining examples of journalism at its finest, showing off dark and ugly parts of the world and—either implicitly or explicitly—demanding society to acknowledge it and either openly accept it or strive to change it (with all three of my examples seeing society choosing the latter).

What is "journalistic responsibility" here?

In our chosen field—that of computer science and software—there is clearly a responsibility for those "in the know" to reveal scenarios where information is being purloined or made available that violates individuals' rights to privacy. It's one thing if I trade my personal sales habits to a grocery store chain in exchange for a percentage off the final sale. That's a choice I'm making, consciously and knowingly. (By this point, if you haven't figured that out, you're just deliberately hiding from the fact.) But for somebody else to disclose my purchasing history without my consent to another party, that's brushing a very ugly moral dark area. And if a company is choosing to take its customers' personal data and make it available for anyone else to use as they see fit—for whatever purpose that third party can imagine—then cheers and kudos to the whistle-blower who brings media attention on that behavior.

But Twitter doesn't have much of my personal data, and they certainly didn't give it away to anybody—it was stolen from them, according to what I've read so far. What's more, I don't really have that much personal data stored with them—certainly no credit cards, birthdates, financial or medical information, or even family notes. What's there is actually pretty tame, as a Twitter customer.

(Twitter employees are a totally different matter. Admittedly. But let's just stick with the Twitter customer data for now.)

So where is the "journalistic responsibility" in publishing this material?

And are bloggers journalists? Should they be held to the same standards as journalists? And if not, then with all these formerly print-only media moving to the Internet and putting more and more of their material online, where do we draw that line? What's the difference between Fareed Zakaria writing a column on Middle East affairs for Newsweek.com on a monthly basis and Joe Sixpack posting a monthly rant on the illegal and illicit activities of his hometown rival's sports team? Is it just the domain name? And if Joe Sixpack decides to say, point blank, "TechCrunch paid for that material, they hired the guy who broke into the Twitter offices and stole it" on his blog, what avenues does TechCrunch have to decry and/or reverse that trend?

For the record, I oppose what TechCrunch is doing except if there is some blatantly legal violation of consumers' privacy. Frankly, if the hacker had approached me with those documents, I'd be working with the FBI to see the guy tossed in jail, because folks, if he did it to them, he could just as easily do it to you.

But this still leaves the deeper question about where bloggers sit in the journalistic continuum, and I admit, I have a lot of mixed feelings on the subject.


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Wednesday, July 15, 2009 1:35:50 AM (Pacific Daylight Time, UTC-07:00)
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 Saturday, July 11, 2009
Thoughts on the Chrome OS announcement

Google made the announcement on Tuesday: Chrome OS, a "open source, lightweight operating system that will initially be targeted at netbooks."

Huh?

I'm sorry, but from a number of perspectives, this move makes no sense to me.

Don't get me wrong—on a number of levels, the operating system needs a little shaking up. Windows7 looks good, granted, Mac OS is a strong contender, and both are clearly popular with the consuming public, but innovation in the operating system seems pretty limited right now, to eye candy graphical window-opening/window-closing effects, different window decorations (title bars and minimize/maximize buttons), and areas along the edges of the screen to store icons. At no point has any of the last three or four OS releases from any of the major vendors—Microsoft, Apple, or the various Linux distros—really introduced anything novel, just infinite variations on a theme. Filesystems are still hierarchical, users still install and manage applications, and so on. In fact, arguably the most interesting development in operating systems has been the iPhone, and most of its innovations center around two things: the two-finger interface, and the complete mental reboot of what user interface looks and acts like.

Seriously, that's the best we can do?

I see a lot of room for improvements in the operating system experience; for starters, let's do away with the "browser" and just call Firefox, IE and Chrome what they're (far too slowly) evolving into: a generic application host. Get that story right—the acquisition of applications onto the device, the updating of those applications when new versions are available, the offline application experience, and so on—and the operating system and the browser will mesh into a seamless whole. But we're not there yet, not by a long ways, and the first competitor to create such an environment will have a huge advantage over its rivals. Arguably Apple got there first with the iPhone and AppStore, and yet the iPhone still needs iTunes running on a computer to make the experience seamless, and iTunes is definitely not what I call a seamless user experience.

(Besides, the iPhone is hamstrung on a number of levels—I would absolutely despise trying to write this blog post on it, for example.)

Despite the clear window of opportunity for an innovative operating system to step in and make some serious waves in the industry, Google producing an OS really doesn't make sense to me, for a number of reasons.

  • Challenging your opponent on your opponent's turf is never a good idea. A maxim of battle says that one should only battle on favorable terrain, yet Google's deliberately choosing to "cross the line", as it were, into territory that is clearly foreign to them. They have no expertise in marketing it, selling it, researching it, or developing it, while their competitors in this—Microsoft, Apple being the principal two—have been doing it for decades. Literally. I realize that Google has a number of smart people working for them, but it seems pretty presumptuous and arrogant to think they can get this story better, particularly in any kind of short term.
  • This is a difficult problem to tackle. Microsoft's known it for decades, Apple is discovering it all over again, and Linuxers have either wallowed in it as a sign of prowess or just accepted the problem as intractable—it's really hard to get an operating system to recognize the billions of different devices out there. Apple solved it by jealously and zealously chasing anyone who ever tried to run Mac OS on non-Apple hardware. Linux consumers found themselves recompiling kernels or in some cases, having to build device drivers themselves. Microsoft just suffered through it. For a new OS, the only path possible in the beginning is to support the 20% of the devices that 80% of the people use, and hope that nobody else tries a device that isn't on that list and blogs to tell about it. Unfortunately, the chosen target market (consumer netbooks) works against them here in a big way. With developers, it's pretty easy to say, "Sorry, guys, you know how it is, give us a few years, or contribute the patch yourself!"; with consumers, if their BuyMart-bargain-bin web cam doesn't work, it's Google's fault and they'll be up in the acne-spackled BuyMart counter boy's face about it. This will not persuade BuyMart to stock the Chrome-installed netbook for much longer.
  • Is this really the company that swore to "do no evil"? Google's announcement is vague on so many levels, it's almost a FUD play, or else they're trying to blatantly cash in on their "geek cred" to convince investors and analysts that they've finally found a new source of revenue to supplement AdWords. (Well, modulo the fact that this new OS will be open-source, which means it's not really a revenue play, but I'm sure they've got that figured out somehow, too.) Seriously, this doesn't make sense: if you're doing an open-source OS, then where is the source? Where is the transparency? Where is my ability to contribute despite my status as a non-Google developer? What part of this project is open-source in any sense of the term?
  • Netbooks? I realize that netbooks are the new hotness to a lot of people, a compromise between a phone/PDA and a laptop, and that the price point of the netbook means that for the first time, consumers can get into computing for under $250 (rivalling the price of game consoles) that addresses their fundamental needs—email, web surfing and maybe an application or two—but the timing here is just too late. Google's announcement says that "netbooks running Google Chrome OS will be available for consumers in the second half of 2010". Which means that the major competitors (mostly Windows) will have twelve months to convince netbook consumers that Windows (and Windows7, in particular) is the right choice to run the netbook, and Google will be starting from some distance behind the 8-ball. Chrome needs to be available now if they're going to avoid a long and entrenched battle starting from a position of weakness.
  • It's a distraction from their strength. Abraham Lincoln is famous for saying. "You cannot strengthen the weak by weakening the strong", but this represents Google's third or fourth effort into a space that really isn't leveraging their core strength (their ability to scale). Even if the money and resources spent on Chrome (and Android, for that matter) have zero effect on the budgeting and resourcing for Google App Engine and other server plays, the message and story that Google presents to the world is now as disjoint and multifaceted (and therefore harder to grasp) as Microsoft's.
  • Haven't we seen this before? Wasn't it almost a decade ago when another company announced a plan to unify the browser and the desktop? In that case, the world either yawned, rejected it outright ("I don't want to browse my desktop, damnit" was how one friend of mine put it), or sued them over it. Even if Google doesn't run afoul of the DOJ directly, Microsoft is going to love pointing to Chrome OS as clear indication of non-monopoly status the next time DOJ comes calling. If Google does manage somehow to annoy the DOJ antitrust personalities, well... let IBM and Microsoft tell you all about how much fun it is to try to innovate and bring products to market with lawyers looking over your shoulders.
  • Haven't we seen this before? Not too long ago, another vendor tried to go after the "you don't need an operating system" story... except they called it "The Network Is the Computer". All you Java developers, raise your hand. Anybody who doesn't have their hand raised, ask what happened to that vendor from any of the people with their hand in the air. Or ask an Oracle DBA.
  • Haven't we seen this before? Even more recently, another vendor made a play for the netbook+cloud story. All those who've heard of Cloud OS, raise your hand. Anybody who doesn't have your hand raised.... well, I wish I could tell you to go talk to the people with their hand raised, except I don't think anybody does.

This whole idea just feels badly-planned and not well thought-out. Let's see how it executes, so let's meet back here in a year and compare notes, but in the meantime, I'm not hanging up my Java or .NET tools any time soon.


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Saturday, July 11, 2009 1:37:01 AM (Pacific Daylight Time, UTC-07:00)
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 Wednesday, July 01, 2009
Review: "Iron Python in Action" by Michael Foord and Christian Muirhead

OK, OK, I admit it. Maybe significant whitespace isn't all bad. (But don't let me ever catch you quoting me say that.)

The reason for my (maybe) shift in thinking? Manning Publications sent me a copy of Iron Python in Action, and I have to say, I like the book and its approach. Getting me to like Python as a primary language for development will probably take more than just one book can give, but... *shrug* Who knows?

Bear in mind, I have plenty of reasons to like IronPython (Microsoft's Python implementation for the .NET environment):

  • A good friend of mine, Harry Pierson (aka @DevHawk), is the PM on the IPy project, and I'm generally prejudiced in favor of those things that people I know and respect.
  • I'm generally a fan of dynamic languages, particularly those that let you do strange and twisted things to the type system and its instances at runtime. (Yes, I'm looking at you, ECMAScript...)
  • I spent some quality time with IronPython Studio last year while researching a Visual Studio Extensibility "Deep Dive" paper.
  • I've known Jim Hugunin (the creator of IronPython, and Jython before that) for some years, ever since his days working on AspectJ, and he's one of those scary-smart guys that, despite knowing they're scary-smart, still render me stunned when I listen to them.
  • I'm a huge fan of the DLR. It's like having Parrot, but without having to wait a decade (give or take).

But, just to counterbalance the scales, I have plenty of good reasons to dislike IronPython, too:

  • Significant whitespace.
  • The "There's only one way to do it" oath that Pythonistas seem to hold as religion. (Somebody told me that building C-Python—the original implementation—only works for you if you swear a holy oath to The One True Way on the One True Way Bible. Needless to say, I believe them, and have never tried to build C-Python from sources as a result.)
  • Significant whitespace.
  • Uh.... did I mention significant whitespace yet?

I admit, it was with some hesitation that I cracked open the book. Actually, to be honest, I was really ready to just take out all my dislike of significant whitespace and pour it into a heated, vitriolic diatribe on everything that was just wrong with Python.

And...?

Well, OK, I admit it. Maybe significant whitespace isn't all bad.

But this is a review of the book, not the technology. So, on we go.

What I liked about the book

  • The focus is on both .NET and Python, and doesn't try to short-change either the "Python"-ness or the ".NET'-ness by trying to be a "Python book (that happens to run on .NET)" or a ".NET book (that happens to use Python for code samples)". The authors, I think, did a very good job of balancing the two, making this the book to get if you're in that area on the Venn diagram where "Python" overlaps with ".NET".
  • Part 2, "Core development techniques", starts down the "feed you the Python Kool-Ade" pretty quickly, heading straight into Chapter 4 ("Writing an application and design patterns with IronPython") without much of a pause for breath. The authors get into duck typing, protocols, and Model-View-Controller within the first four pages, and begin working on a running example to highlight some of the ideas. (Interestingly enough, they also take a few moments to point out that IronPython on Mono works, and include a couple of screen shots to that effect as we go, though I personally wonder just how many people are really going down this path.) I like the no-holds-barred, show-you-the-code style, but only because they also take time throughout the prose to talk about some of the concepts at work underneath and laced throughout the code. "Show me then tell me" is a time-honored tradition, but too many authors forget the "tell me" part and stop with code. These guys do a good job of following through.
  • The chapters in Part 3, "IronPython and advanced .NET", form an interesting collection of how IronPython can fit into the rest of the .NET stack, demonstrating how to use IronPython with WPF, ASP.NET, and IronPython's crowning glory, Silverlight. If you're into front-end stuff, this is the section where I think you're going to have the most fun.
  • The chapters in Part 4, "Reaching out with IronPython", is I think the most important part of the book, showing how to extend IronPython (chapter 14) with C#/VB extensions (similar to how a C-Python developer would extend Python by writing C code, but much much simpler) and the opposite—how to embed IronPython inside of existing C#/VB applications (chapter 15), which is really an exercise in using the DLR Hosting APIs. While the discussion in chapter 15 is good, I wish it'd had a bit more thorough discussion of how the DLR could be hosted regardless of the scripting language, though I admit that's pretty beyond the scope of this book (which is focused, after all, entirely on IronPython, and as a result should stay focused on how to host IPy).

What I found "Meh" about the book

  • Part 1 ("A new language for .NET", "Introduction to Python", and ".NET objects and IronPythong") does a good job of bringing the rank beginner up to speed, getting some basic Python ideas across in the same breath that they bring .NET home. The only problem is, it only works well if you're neither a Python programmer nor a .NET programmer. Chapter 1, for example, does a sort of Cannonball-into-the-pool kind of dive into Python, but dives equally into the "Iron" parts as it does the "Python" parts. If you're either a Pythonista or a .NETter, I suspect you're going to be tempted to flip pages pretty quickly, and (I suspect) miss a few things. Chapter 2 is all about Python (meaning .NETters will probably spend some time here), but it certainly doesn't feel like an exhaustive reference, nor does Chapter 3 stand as an exhaustive discussion about all things .NET, either. I almost wish all three chapters had been collapsed into one—suffice it to say, I don't feel like I know the Python language, and don't feel like this book could be my Python reference next to me as I learn it, and I know that it's not a great .NET reference, either. Fortunately, the goal of these three chapters feels pretty clearly to be "Teach you just enough to make you dangerous (and able to understand the rest of the book)", and once we hit Part 2, rubber meets road pretty quickly.
  • By the time you hit Chapter 7, less than halfway through the book, the authors have created a fairly nice, if simplistic, application for later dissection, but it's not until you hit Chapter 7 that they begin to start unit-testing, even though they insist (on page 17) that "Dynamic language programmers are often proponents of strong testing rather than strong typing" (a quote they attribute to Bruce Eckel, though I'm relatively certain I heard Dave Thomas and Neal Ford say it with respect to Ruby, long before Eckel started "Thinking in Python... or Flex... or whatever"). If unit-testing is that important, why wait three chapters into the application's development before writing a single unit-test? This doesn't jibe with me, somehow.
  • If you're into back-end stuff, chapter 12 on "Databases and web services" is pretty bland. The fact that the two are combined into a single chapter is indicative, all by itself, of how deep or intensive the coverage goes, and there's zero mention of anything beyond basic ADO.NET. The coverage on web services covers REST relatively well, but there's zero coverage of WCF, and the whole of SOAP-based services is all of four or five pages. And Workflow? Doesn't exist, isn't even mentioned (except for an appearance in a table, "The major new APIs of .NET 3.0"). Yikes.

What I actively disliked about the book

Actually, not much. Manning did their usual superb job of arrowed callouts to point out particular concepts in the code listings, the copyediting is professional (meaning there's no obvious typos or misspellings that just break up the flow of prose, something that not all publishers seem to take seriously), and the graphics flow nicely alongside the prose, not dominating the page but accentuating it.

In fact, about the only thing I'd care to criticize is the huge number of footnotes, particularly in the first chapter. (By page 20 in the book, there have already been 30 footnotes.) When you have three footnotes per page, on average (and sometimes more), it does tend to distract, at least to me it does. It feels like there were ways, for most of them, to inject the idea or concept into the main prose, or leave it out entirely, but that could just be a difference of writing style, too.

Summation

If you're a .NET developer interested in learning/using IronPython on your next project, this is a definite winner. If you're a Python developer looking to see how to break into .NET, I'm not so sure this is your book, but I say that mostly because I'm not a Pythonista and can't really speak to how that mindset will find this as an introduction to the .NET space. My intuition tells me that this would be a good springboard into another book on .NET for the Python programmer, but I'll have to leave that to Pythonistas who've read this book to comment one way or another.


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Wednesday, July 01, 2009 2:00:14 AM (Pacific Daylight Time, UTC-07:00)
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