Book review: ActionScript Graphic Cookbook by Peter Backx and Dominic Gélineau

book cover
ActionScript Graphic Cookbook
Backx, Peter and Gélineau, Dominic
2012, Packt Publishing

This is a cookbook, a book of recipes; it is not a reference or teaching book; you will not have a comprehensive library at the end. This book give specific solutions to specific needs. A teaching book might show a finished chart with call-outs explaining how to create or configure the pieces, but a recipe is not an analysis: it starts with the least foundation it can and works towards a finished graphic. This book will show you how to create graphic representations of data; it will not tell you when to use a particular technique.

It is also not a users’ manual for the Data Visualization chart library from Adobe, although the recipes in the middle of the book use that library. For simple line charts (e.g. sparklines), the recipe describes how to draw the lines oneself using the ActionScript graphic primitives. For advanced rotatable 3-D charts (which Data Visualization does not support) and 3-D landscapes, it uses advanced geometry and low-level polygon fills. While these are not Flex components (the code is pure ActionScript with mostly Sprite-based classes, many recipes are connected to data, sometimes dynamically.

Each recipe presents as a set of sections: the title, Getting ready, How to do it…, How it works…, There’s more…, and See also. Besides the inconsistent use of ellipsis, the title section (which describes the need) is often perfunctory and sometimes omits a picture of the finished graph or chart (i.e. the tempting photo of the finished dish). While some How it works… sections show additional (but too few) images, a graphics book should err on their side of too many images, and certainly should always have one as part of the recipe’s description.

Within sections, some of the recipes do built on the previous one a bit: graphic enhancements, adding different data sources, or using a more complex representations. The sections cover

  • Drawing with the core ActionScript objects
  • Representing sets of data in graphs
  • Bar charts (using Adobe’s Data Visualization library)
  • Advanced charts without the Data Visualization library
  • Charting Data on Maps
  • Animation and Zooming in on Data
  • Showing Network Data Relationships Graphically
  • Rotatable 3-D Charts and Data Landscapes

The book is available in Kindle and paperback editions as well as PDF, mobi, and epub direct from the publisher. The PDF seems to be images of the pages, not text (no copy-and-paste, no external links, and no links from the table of contents). It is also available on-line from the publisher’s site once purchased. The HTML presentation, often being very wide, actually makes the chapters easier to read than the book format: the code does not need to wrap; the images are visible on the same “page” as the rest of the recipe, and the links work.

Some recipes need to import data from files or web services and include code and discussion to do so; these pedestrian routines (and some entire recipes!) distract from the topic of graphic functionality; perhaps they could have been relegated to an appendix. Some recipes, perhaps acknowledging that supporting code is large and tedious, direct the user to download files from the Packt Publishing website and “… follow along”.  The index is 12 pages long; very respectable for a 280 page book.

For its niche, it is likely the definitive reference. It does not address the relative merits of using a well-known charting library vs. using trigonometric functions and low-level drawing functions; clearly these include abstraction and performance. Cookbooks don’t offer a questionnaire; they just tell you how to make a great souffle  Joe Bob says: check it out.

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