Book Reviews

A page containing books reviews of some of my favourite reference books.

I read a large amount of reference books on varied technical and business subjects, and as such I am often asked to recommend books to friends and colleagues, therefore I decided to create this page to highlight some of my favourite titles. Please note that all of the books which are reviewed here are books which I own and have read, and their presence on this page is indicative of the fact that I am recommending them to you (I will not be including any books that I dislike here!).

Business

Dealers of Lightning: Xerox PARC and the Dawn of the Computer Age

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Review

Dealers of Lightning: Xerox PARC and the Dawn of the Computer Age by Michael A. Hiltzik tells the story of the forming of of the Xerox PARC (Palo Alto Research Centre) facility in the 1970’s, which was responsible for inventing amongst others the Ethernet network protocol, the mouse, the laser printer, the graphic user interface, word processing, and the SmallTalk object oriented programming language. Many of these inventions were famously squandered by Xerox, where the corporate management of the organisation often seen the scientists and engineers at PARC as being misfits, incapable of converting their inventions into products that could be marketed.

Michael A. Hiltzik packs a lot of detail and names into a book that, while dense in places, is enjoyable to read due to the quick pace of the story telling. The various real-life characters portrayed in the book are done so in a colourful and hopefully accurate manner. The “player” meetings certainly took the concept of peer review to new extremes! My favourite chapter covers the infamous visit to PARC by Steve Jobs of Macintosh fame, which is both entertaining and insightful.

Founders at Work: Stories of Startups' Early Days

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In Founders at Work: Stories of Startups' Early Days, author Jessica Livingston interviews the founders of some of the most successful information technology companies in existence, including Adobe, Apple, Lotus, Flickr, PayPal, Hotmail, and many, many more.

The material is presented as a series of questions and answers between the author and the respective founders, which flow freely in a conversational style. Overall I found the book to be very easy to read, and you can dip in and out on individual chapters covering the companies you find most interesting.

The book is a great read for anyone considering forming or joining a tech start-up: I found at least one great insight shared in each chapter. Strongly recommended for budding entrepreneurs.

Peopleware (2nd Ed.) by Tom Demarco and Timothy Lister

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Often touted as the anti-Dilbert manifesto, Peopleware advocates the importance of looking after talented people as being one of the main determining factors of software project success, with a high rate of staff turnover being the worst case scenario.

I really enjoyed reading this book as it reaffirmed some of my own long-held beliefs about project management and people management in general. Highly recommended for developers and managers alike.

Never Eat Alone by Keith Ferrazzi

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Like many people who work in the computing field, my social skills at times are less than stellar. In fact, I can be quite lazy and reaching out to my colleagues and establishing good working relationships. I decided to pick up a copy of Keith Ferrazzi's "Never Eat Alone" to see if I could learn some actual techniques to improve my soft skills, and overall I would say that I have picked up some very good ideas from this book.

The difficulty I had in finishing this book was due to the writing tone, which can at times come across as being a bit salesman-like and yes, there is plenty of name dropping by the author, but if you are willing to look beyond this you will find some solid advice on how to build out your network of contacts.

My favourite section is on “pinging”, a way of keeping connections open with your friends and colleagues that all computer scientists can understand, and one which I have committed myself to following since reading this book. Overall a difficult read for me due to the tone, but rewarding.

Programming

PHP 5 Objects, Patterns, and Practice by Matt Zandstra

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Late on in my PHP hacking career I became interested in design patterns, which are basically algorithms for the object oriented programmer. Most quality design pattern books are written for C++ or Java programmers and provide sample code in those languages, so it was nice to see this book emerge for PHP programmers and I bought it and read it from cover to cover as soon as it was released.

If you are interested in learning about how to implement various design patterns in PHP, I strongly recommend this excellent book.

DHTML Utopia: Modern Web Design Using JavaScript & DOM by Stuart Langridge

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Long before Flash, long before AJAX, there was DHTML. With this title, Stuart Langridge has reinvigorated this topic by producing a concise book packed full of advanced scripting techniques.

What more can I say, I love this book as it forced me to look at JavaScript and DOM scripting in a whole new light, while I abandoned some old bad habits along the way.

Agile Web Development with Rails by Dave Thomas et al

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Ruby on Rails is a web application framework written in the Ruby language. It uses the Model View Controllers (MVC) design pattern, and emphasizes standard conventions over heavy, upfront configurations. The creator of the Rails framework David Heinemeier Hansson is one of the authors of this book.

I bought this title because I wanted to learn the inner workings of Rails, and it does not disappoint in this regard. My only criticism of this book is that it is really two books in one: the first half of the book takes on a tutorial format where the reader is brought through the construction of a Rails-based shopping cart; the second half of the book is a technical overview of the framework itself. While I read all of the book, the second half held my interest most. My review is based on the first edition.

Historical

Wizard: The Life and Times of Nikola Tesla : Biography of a Genius

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I first become aware of Nikola Tesla through various media references, such as an enigmatic cameo appearance in the movie The Prestige played by David Bowie, the electric motor cars produced by Telsa Motors, as well as numerous references in the computer game Fallout 3. Inspired to find out more about this fascinating man, I decided to look into purchasing a biography of Telsa.

Wizard: The Life and Times of Nikola Tesla : Biography of a Genius by Marc Seifer is thoroughly researched, and represents the fruition of some twenty years of effort by the author. While at times a difficult read due to the sheer verbosity of the information presented, the reader is well rewarded with a superb recount of Tesla's early life in Eastern Europe, right up to his lonely death in a hotel room in the United States.

There are many highlights to this book, such as an in depth exploration of Tesla’s difficult relationship with the financier JP Morgan, his intense rivalry with Marconi over wireless technology, his many legal battles over patent infringements and financial difficulties, and most importantly his varied inventions that still resonate in all of our everyday lives.

I really love this book and recommend it to anyone interested in learning about Nikola Telsa.

Where Wizards Stay Up Late by Katie Hafner and Matthew Lyon

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This books charts the birth of the Internet, from the original ARPANET designed for the American government right up until the Internet of the early 1990's. All of the key companies and characters behind the early formation of the Internet, along with related technologies like email, are given a detailed treatment in this excellent book.

If you are interested in learning about the very beginnings of the Internet, and the people behind it, then you will enjoy reading Where Wizards Stay Up Late.

Popular Science

Packing for Mars: The Curious Science of Life in the Void, by Mary Roach

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In Packing for Mars, author Mary Roach explores the effects of prolonged space flight on the human body and mind. The book covers such intimate details as toilet designs, sex (or rather lack of), and bodily odour, as well as the psychology factors that are likely to cause difficulties when people from different backgrounds are placed in such demanding, confined environments for months at a time.

Despite being a scientific and medical subject matter, the author injects a lot of humour into this book, making it very enjoyable to read. My only complaint about this book is that the title is somewhat misleading, given that there is not much content in here specifically about Mars, as the book is more about the evolution of space-flight with regards to its effects on humans (and animals in the early days). Nonetheless, a great read for those of you interested in space-flight.

Starman: The Truth Behind the Legend of Yuri Gagarin, by Jamie Doran and Piers Bizony

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Starman is a biography of the famous Russian cosmonaut and the first man in space, Yuri Gagarin. Not knowing much about Yuri before picking up this book, I found it to be a riveting read.

Yuri's wartime upbringing during the Nazi occupation of his village in Russia was very disturbing, in fact he was lucky to survive. Ironically this tough childhood which resulted in his small stature due to poor nutrition helped him to fit into the Volstok capsule later in life, that would carry him into space. He seemed to become a cosmonaut by chance, without even realizing that he had signed up for it until it was too late (the program was naturally quite secretive given the background of the Cold War).

The description of the pre-launch was very tense, with a rival cosmonaut Titov suited up on the launch pad ready to step in if Yuri had a problem. There were also last minute repairs to the capsule, carried out while Yuri waited calmly inside in his space suit. Re-entry did not go smoothly either: the cable between the two vehicle components did not separate cleanly (the same issue occurred on Titov's second flight). Upon landing in rural Russia, Yuri and his family instantly became famous. Fame came at a high cost for all of them, especially Yuri who drank heavily and was adulteress.

Yuri would never fly to space again, after being a back-up pilot on a doomed Soyuz flight, this "national treasure" (in promotional terms) was too precious to risk. His jet flight hours were low so he decided to return to flight lessons, and that decision would ultimately lead to his death at the age of just 34 during a jet training flight crash. If he were alive today, he would be as celebrated worldwide as Buzz Aldrin. He lived an extraordinary life.

Open Source

The Cathedral and the Bazaar: Musings on Linux and Open Source by an Accidental Revolutionary, by Eric S. Raymond

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The Cathedral and the Bazaar brings together a number of papers by Eric S. Raymond, in which he attempts to understand the open source movement and the hacker culture surrounding it.

The book is a seminal body of work on open source and hacker culture by one of the leading figures in open source today. If you are interested in the beginnings of the open source movement, I highly recommend this book.

Science Fiction

Red Mars (Mars Trilogy) by Kim Stanley Robinson

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Red Mars is the first book in a trilogy that tells the story of mankind's terraforming of Mars over a period of a few hundred years. This book, and I presume the subsequent books in the series which I have not read yet, are firmly on the "hard science fiction" side of the genre, with technologies like spacecraft design, habitat design, space elevators, terraforming and genetic engineering explored in some dept.

On the dramatic side of things, the book can be a bit slow at times, however the character development is really brilliant in my opinion, with different chapters being told from the perspective of several, often competing central characters. A must for those interested in the future exploration of the Red Planet.

I Am Legend by Richard Matheson

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Robert Neville is the sole survivor of a plague that has reduced the human race to a horde of vampires. Held up in his heavily fortified house, he spends his days seeking out the undead and destroying them as they hide from the daylight, while at night he drinks heavily while listening to the cries of the undead that besiege his house every night, intent on breaking in to devour him.

In what is nothing more than an extended short story, many serious themes are explored expertly by the author, and my only problem with this book is that is is too short! It is an excellent work of psychology, drama and science fiction.

Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury

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Fahrenheit 451 tells the story of Guy Montag, a fireman from an alternative future where books are banned and firemen hunt down and burn any books they find, and arrest those found in possession. It tells the story of how Guy manages to awaken and break free from an overbearing society, where all media is State propaganda tasked with hiding the fact from a largely complicit population that a devastating war is upon them.

Sound familiar? It should as it has many parallels with real examples in history. The book was written in 1953, after the events of WW2 when book burning was common in Nazi Germany, and is steeped in American Cold War paranoia about an unseen enemy coming to destroy our way of life. In fact, the television as a tool of population coercion has never been so vividly portrayed, and I cannot help but feel that the author was influenced by his surroundings in 1950's America when the television was really taking hold.

I was most impressed however with how well this book has aged: it still has a lot to say about our current society, and shows that we have not really moved on that much in the last six decades since it was first published.

Consider Phlebas by Iain M. Banks

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Consider Phlebas is the first in the long-running Culture series by Iain M. Banks. It tells the story of Horza, a shape-shifting agent working against the Culture for a jihadist alien race called the Idirans, in order to retrieve a wayward Culture Mind (a super-powerful self-sufficient AI) which has taken refuge on a forbidden planet after ejecting itself from a ship under attack by the Idirans.

The book is fast-paced action science fiction at its best, that feels like a grand tour of the universe inhabited by the Culture and their enemies, with some wonderful (and horrific) locations and characters. The story builds up to an exciting and claustrophobic climax on a largely uninhabited and desolate planet, which has deep personal history for Horza.

The central character is something of an anti-hero, who is quite flawed and often ruthless. The book is more about the characters and their settings, than the details of the technology (this is not hard science fiction), but nonetheless the technology presented is interesting and often amusing in the case of the AIs.

The massive scale of this book and fast pace makes me want to see it made into a movie, and I eagerly purchased the rest of the Culture series based on reading this. I cannot wait to read more work by the author.

John Collins

I have been writing about web technology and software development since 2001. I am the developer of the Alpha Framework for PHP, and the five.today personal productivity app. I love open source, technology, and economics.

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