Over the past couple of months I have read a few books that I wanted to talk about on this blog. My reviews (if you want to call them that) of each as too short to warrant their own article, so here they are combined into one list.
The first book on the list is Zero Day: A Novel by Mark Russinovich, author of the fine Sysinternals tools; tools that rely on every day. He has also written a couple of extremely dense technical books on the internals of the Windows operating Systems. So it came as a a surprise to me when I heard that he was writing a novel. I thought he should be working on Windows Azure not fiction. So while this may not be the greatest work of fiction ever produced, this book is noteworthy for a couple of things. First and foremost, it draws attention to the fragility of all those computerized systems that we depend on so heavily for our daily lives and illustrates how easily a couple of determined individuals can disrupt them. Also, the book is a lot more graphic than I had expected. I didn’t mind necessarily, though I failed to see how detailed descriptions of the physical features of the female characters was really adding to the progression of the story. Finally, this is the only novel I know of, that features an appearance of WinDbg. As can be expected from someone as technical as Mark Russinovich, the depiction of the technological aspects is very accurate, there is none of the technical mumbo-jumbo and outright silliness you see in TV series, movies and the like (I am looking at you, Password: Swordfish). Overall, a pretty good book that raises some important points.
Next up is The Story of Stuff by Annie Leonard. I had already written on this blog about her film of the same name. The message of the two is the same: we are consuming way more than we should, and it is not even making us as happy as we wish it did. Only the book backs it up with a ton of figures and research and even contains some helpful hints on what each and every one of us can do on an individual basis or where one can turn for more information. This book together with No Impact Man (which I wrote about here) has fundamentally changed the way I view my place in the world and the responsibility I have towards this planet. These books are the reason you see environment posts on this blog.
Facts and Fallacies of Software Engineering by Robert Glass. This one I had on my wish list for a long time, before I decided to buy and read it. The book contains a number of interesting facts about my profession, some of which I knew, some of which I didn’t know. That’s OK because I am not a software developer by training and this book was a great help in making up for that. Another great book in that category is Coder to Developer by Mike Gunderloy, which is a bit more practical in that it contains all the info you would need to get a basic understanding of the work and the tools of a software developer. What I found most amazing about Facts and Fallacies was that the basic research quoted by the author in support of his theses was often from the very early days of the software field. The fact that a book such as this is still necessary after that long speaks volumes to the way old wisdom is ignored in favor of the latest fad in our field.
The Master Switch by Tim Wu is the story of the various information empires that have come and gone over the past 150 years or so. I personally remember only the latest one: the dotcom boom (and bust). But is interesting to see the similarities between say the internet boom and the advent of amateur radio. Both carried the promise of leading to greater democratization by brining information to the masses. It is also interesting what kind of sabotage companies got away with in the past. There is the story of a phone company stealing their competitors wires. In another instance one company was required to let its competitors to install switching equipment on their premises to connect to their network. Because they didn’t want that, they simply left open a window in the room housing the equipment and soon enough birds were living their, destroying their competitors equipment.
Finally there is The Filter Bubble by Eli Pariser. The author makes an very good point about how harmful the increasing personalization on the internet can be. By seeing only what we like, we no longer encounter anything that we may not like, but that is important for us in order to be informed citizens. I have actually noticed this on myself: I have a couple of dozen RSS feeds set up in Outlook to keep me up to date on topics that I care about. Because I know I should know about current affairs to understand the political landscape and make an informed decision come election time, I have included a couple of news sites. But more often than not I find myself checking tech blogs or movie trailers before I even look at the much more serious but considerably less entertaining political headlines. This actually links to something mentioned in The Master Switch. In an era when there were just a handful of broadcasting companies, everybody was watching the same programming. It gave people something to talk about and more importantly it allowed the nation to be rallied behind a common cause. Nowadays, thanks to personalization, everybody can live in their own little world, where they only see the news they like and go forever without encountering a single dissenting opinion. An opinion that might might otherwise have made them rethink some of their positions and notice that there is more to it than they might have realized before.