Review of Turing’s Cathedral

Turing's Cathedral: The Origins of the Digital UniverseTuring’s Cathedral: The Origins of the Digital Universe by George B. Dyson

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This book is for someone who is interested in the the history of computing, and in particular the early days around WWII when many of the basics were set. Although the title references Turing, and he does receive some attention in this book, the focus is more on John von Neumann and the group at the Institute for Advanced Studies at Princeton University. And of course the author is the son of Freeman Dyson, who is a prominent scholar at IAS, and that may have helped in getting access to archival materials.

John von Neumann created the basic architecture of computers as they continue to this day, so the decisions he and his colleagues made still inform our use of computers. And along the way they created many techniques. One in particular that I was interested in was the technique of Monte Carlo simulation. As someone who has taught Statistics to college classes, I was familiar with this technique, but didn’t know the whole history. It was developed as a way to model, in a computer, the results of atomic bomb explosions. And it is clear from this book that the driving force in the development of computers at this time was nuclear explosions. But the book also looks that artificial life experiments and other excursions, even if they were not the main driver.

If you like this sort of thing, it is worth a read.



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Review: Welcome to Night Vale

I recently discovered this podcast, though it is so popular I imagine many people reading this already know all about it. Night Vale is a fictional town located in the desert somewhere in the Southwestern United States, and the podcast is presented as a community radio broadcast of the goings on. So the format is that of a small-town radio presenting all of the usual community news, such as the PTA meetings, actions of the city council, high school sports reports, and so on. But this is a town where all conspiracy theories are true! Some of the descriptions I have seen are:

  • Lake Wobegone as seen through the eyes of Stephen King
  • NPR meets The Mothman Propechies

I am enjoying this immensely, and I think you should check it out and see if you might enjoy it as well. Each show is around 25 minutes in length, and they are released twice a month.

The web site for this podcast is http://commonplacebooks.com/welcome-to-night-vale/

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Review of The Future of the Mind: The Scientific Quest to Understand, Enhance, and Empower the Mind

The Future of the Mind: The Scientific Quest to Understand, Enhance, and Empower the MindThe Future of the Mind: The Scientific Quest to Understand, Enhance, and Empower the Mind by Michio Kaku

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I loved this book, but then I like Michio Kaku in general so I was not surprised. He takes a look at the research on how the brain functions, and at the medical studies involved in tapping into the brain to do things like mentally control machines. The implications for assistance technology are pretty mind-blowing. From there he goes into whether it may be possible to upload a complete neuronal map into a computer, and what that might entail. Then he looks at beaming such a map via lasers to another star system as a form of interstellar travel. It is all very “science fiction”, but grounded in solid science. The BRAIN initiative from the Obama administration could make all of this come true sooner than you expect. I recommend highly.



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Turning Off Comments

It has gotten to the point where pretty much every comment I get is spam. I was manually moderating the comments, in addition to employing filters, but I don’t really see the point any longer, so I am turning off comments. If you are a real person you should be able to find me without any trouble.

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Review of Open Sources

Open SourcesOpen Sources by Chris DiBona

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This book is for people who like to go back and revisit the early days of Open Source. When this was written, Google didn’t even appear, Yahoo was the world’s #1 web site, and Netscape was the fresh-faced challenger upsetting the established computing order. Much of it involves long explanations of things like licenses that are probably well-known to people today. But it can be interesting to revisit this history, particularly if you were not paying that much attention when it first happened. For example, understanding what Cygnus was doing before it got bought by Red Hat can be enlightening, and now that some people want to get away from the GCC it may even be relevant. The book is a series of essays written by the participants, and explain arcana such as why we use RFC’s (and why are they called that, anyway?) For that reason, I would not call it a book to sit down read through cover-to-cover. This would be a great book to dip into when you had 20-30 minutes to spare, however, and didn’t want to start on a long novel.

There is a follow up volume called Open Sources 2.0 which I have started reading, but it also is one I dip into, so it may be some time before I finish it.



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Review of Zero Day

Zero DayZero Day by Mark Russinovich

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Mark Russinovich is the developer of the Sysinternals suite, and moved to Microsoft when his company was purchased by the Redmond Behemoth. And this matters because this is a techno-thriller where accuracy matters, at least to those of us who understand how this works. Hollywood thinks you can just type “Override’ on any green monochrome terminal and get instant access to any computer system. But Mark knows how things actually work, and it shows in this book. Everything in it is plausible and believable.

As you might infer from the title, the plot hinges on a deadly computer virus/malware that has no known “antidote” when first encountered. It has seriously bad effects on computer systems, and is responsible for multiple deaths because those systems control so much of of our infrastructure today. That is one of the things this book really brings home, how vulnerable we are to a properly crafted piece of code that can turn our systems against us.

But who is behind this malware? And how do they plan to benefit from this? That is what you need to read the book to find out, I don’t plan to give any spoilers.

This is part of series involving the main character, but it is the only one I have read so far.



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Review of Making Things Happen

Making Things Happen: Mastering Project ManagementMaking Things Happen: Mastering Project Management by Scott Berkun

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This is an excellent book for anyone who wants to understand project management on a practical level. The author, Scott Berkun, was a project manager at Microsoft, working on Internet Explorer, and draws on this experience in presenting his ideas on managing projects. One thing I like is that he shows his own growth and how he learned lessons in the course of his work, instead of just handing down pronouncements from on high. And the book is definitely full of experience and practical advice. What it is not is another PMBOK, which is OK because we already have one of those.

The book is divided into three parts. Part One focuses on the planning process, and discusses the usual planning and scheduling, but also adds some very valuable material on why you need a vision, what constitutes a good vision, Where good ideas come from, and how to use them. This gets into some very specific application, such as putting prototypes together and getting in front of people, which I think will seem natural to anyone in an Agile environment.

In Part Two he dives into Skills, with topics like “How to make good decisions”, communications, meetings, and how to not annoy people. This is very useful because sometimes we do things that do annoy people, and that is not helpful when we need their assistance to make the project move forward.

The last section is called Management, but a lot of it is based on an analysis of what constitutes leadership, how to get power, and how to use power. He is very practical, and I liked his discussion of the pluses and minuses of an office near the boss. The minus happens if your boss is a micro-manager who interferes with you, but being in a position to hear everyone else’s interactions with the boss can be priceless.

All-in-all, I think any project manager will find a lot of valuable advice in this book. The other good thing is that Berkun is a good writer, so I found I was drawn to keep reading, unlike some books that you slog through for a few nuggets.



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Review of The Fall of the Roman Empire: a New History of Rome and the Barbarians

The Fall of the Roman Empire: A New History of Rome and the BarbariansThe Fall of the Roman Empire: A New History of Rome and the Barbarians by Peter Heather

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Certain questions are perennial, and one of those is why the Roman Empire fell. Peter Heather provides an explanation that is detailed and nuanced, and surely better than Edward Gibbon’s work. First of all, it was only the Western part that fell at the time he is writing about (5th century, basically), and there were certain accidents of fate that helped the outcome. At the same time, the Eastern part of the Empire remained strong and vibrant at least up until the rise of Islam in the 7th century, and technically the Easter empire did not fall until 1453 when the Ottoman Turks finally conquered Constantinople.

The fall of the western Empire was a complex phenomenon made possible primarily by changes in the political organization of the Germanic tribes (mostly Gothic) brought about by two different forces. One was the move of the Huns from the area to the east, who moved into the Hungarian plain in the 4th century and began absorbing Germanic groups into their own empire. And the other was the pressure from Rome itself. By its commerce, its military pressure, and its diplomacy, Rome essentially molded the Germanic tribes into larger and more effective political units that could seize the opportunities they were given as a result of military reverses Rome faced. And because the elite groups in the Empire held most of their wealth in the form of landed estates, once the balance of power began to shift they looked to transfer their allegiance to the new barbarian kingdoms. You can’t pick up land and take it with you, after all.

All in all, a very good book on the subject



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Review of Beyond Fear: Thinking Sensibly About Security In An Uncertain World

Beyond Fear: Thinking Sensibly about Security in an Uncertain WorldBeyond Fear: Thinking Sensibly about Security in an Uncertain World by Bruce Schneier

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Bruce wrote this book in 2003 as a response to 9/11 and how it lead to changes in security practices in the U.S. He criticizes many of the security measures taken as “security theater” that makes it look like something is being done without actually accomplishing anything useful. His criticisms probably are nothing terribly new to people 2013 when many people have come to similar conclusions, but what I think is more important in this book is that he attempts to lay out a way of thinking about security that is rational. Security can never be 100% in a world of human beings, and security always entails trade-offs that make it a cost-benefit decision. As an example, you would never hire an armed guard to protect your empty bottles for getting the 10 cent deposit back. That just doesn’t make sense. Bruce lays out a 5 point analysis you can do with any security plan that asks questions about what you are trying to protect, what are the costs of the protection, will the proposed solution actually work, etc. It is a good analysis and worth a read if you want to learn how to think intelligently about security.



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Review of The Code Book

The Code Book: The Science of Secrecy from Ancient Egypt to Quantum CryptographyThe Code Book: The Science of Secrecy from Ancient Egypt to Quantum Cryptography by Simon Singh

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This book is a very good review of the history on encryption and explains the basic principles involved. It is a lot like David Kahn’s The Code Breakers, but is available for a good deal less. Beginning with Herodotus and some secrecy measures from The Persian Wars, it then moves forward with Arab scholars, medieval developments, and right up to asymmetric public key encryption used today. Highly recommended for anyone who wants to get an overview of what the issues are, but is not looking to dive into the mathematics.



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