Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Book Reviews: Head First SQL, and Learning PHP & MySQL

You’ve probably read about the 10-year-old boy from Mexico, who tried a unique method to avoid his boring day at school. His solution? He glued his hand to his bed. After paramedics freed him — in time to get to school a few hours late — the boy said: "I didn't want to go to school because vacation was so much fun."
This incident reminded me of the gem by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1749—1832), who epitomized the essence of education with this simple sentence: “A man learns about only what he loves.”
Modern education should be based on these principles: enjoyment, enthusiasm, wonder, passion, curiosity, creativity, imagination — all facets of love.
Instead, in too many of our schools, we are given mere instruction. The misguided goal is to cram facts into the student’s heads, so that these facts can be regurgitated during the exam, and then forgotten as quickly as possible afterwards. Dickens satirized this mis-education in his novel Hard Times, where his schoolmaster (Thomas Gradgrind) insisted on “the one thing needful”:

“Now what I want is, Facts. Teach these boys and girls nothing but Facts. Facts alone are wanted in life. Plant nothing else, and root out everything else.”

Now and then I discover a teacher or a leader who is truly inspired; a product that evokes creativity; or a book that conveys its subject with an approach that is thoroughly unique. Head First SQL is just that kind of book.

And how is this miracle of pedagogy accomplished? … The book is filled with illustrations, lots of white space, and eye-catching text. Humor and a light touch is rarely absent. Most importantly, the essential ideas are presented in small easy-to-grasp chunks, presented at just the right time.

Good writing never happens by accident. The book’s philosophy of “metacognition” (as the editors call it) explained in the introduction. And the implementation of these subtle educational ideas is flawless. The book never leaves you wondering “what’s going on here?”. The book just works.
If you skim through the book at a bookstore, don’t be offput by the author’s choice of the DOS-like interface used to enter MySQL commands. If you want to learn to make websites, you shouldn’t start with the WSYWIG Dreamweaver: you should first learn some coding in XHTML and CSS. To learn SQL, you’ll need this same kind of understanding of the nuts and bolts. The slick GUI can be added later.

After you’ve mastered the fundamentals, you might want to continue your SQL study with another fine O’Reilly book, Learning PHP & MySQL (2nd Edition). The book, intended for beginners — beginners with some HTML and graphic design background — covers more topics and goes into greater depth than its Head First cousin. Despite the cute kookaburra birds on the front cover, the tone of this SQL book is less casual, but the writing style is equally clear.
These days, everywhere you look, you’ll find websites and blogs powered by MySQL and PHP. For webmasters and blogmasters, after XMTHL and CSS, these two languages are the next big things. With these two books on your shelf you will master the subjects quickly and painlessly, and have time for a vacation in the south of Italy, like our good friend, Mr. Goethe.

Head First SQL
by Lynn Beighley
O'Reilly, ISBN: 978-0-596-52684-9
Paperback, 571 pages, $ 44.99

Learning PHP and MySQL
by Michele E. Davis and Jon A. Phillips
O'Reilly, ISBN: 978-0-596-51401-3
Paperback, 411 pages, $ 29.99


Boy Glues Himself To Bed to Avoid School (from the Guardian):