- By John K. Waters
Are you still out there, wandering the malls, back sore, feet numb, desperate
eyes searching cheery window displays, happy holiday music working its way
through your brain like a starving boll weevil? Well, you are not alone. We're
not bad people; we're busy
people. And the holidays—well they just sneak up on a guy.
You might not be afflicted by the annual consumer
convulsion that seizes most of this country at this time of year. Lots of people
are relatively free of it for religious, cultural, and-or philosophical reasons.
But if you are so afflicted, and you've managed to leave too much to the last
minute, here's my fall-back, holy-crap-I'm-outa-time advice for the shopping
challenged: Get 'em a book.
Books aren't the lame presents your 11-year-old nephew,
who really, really wanted a RoboSapien says they are. They're solid and kind of
heavy, so they're much more substantial than, say, a plastic humanoid robot. And
they're quadrate objects, so they're very easy to wrap—unlike, I don't know, a
full-function, quick-moving robot with multiple programmable reflexes. (Sorry
Hunter, but The Sharper Image store was out of the damned things.)
Okay, so get the kids a toy,
but for the codaderos on your list, consider the following titles,
which you should be able to find on the shelves at your local,
independent-book-seller-crushing chain store, even on Xmas Eve:
Wicked Cool Java: Code Bits,
Open-Source Libraries, and Project Ideas, by Brian D. Eubanks (No Starch
Press, November 15, 2005). This is a fun book, kind of a grab bag of cool stuff
to do with Java, things you might not have thought of. It touches on RSS
newsfeeds, creating music and sound in Java, and the Semantic Web (Web 2.0). A
little on the light side, but in this case that's really a strength.
Code: The Hidden Language of
Computer Hardware and Software, by
Charles Petzold (Microsoft Press, November 15, 1999). Billed as one of those
how-it-works texts, this very readable book actually has more in common with
Know Much about History, at least in its effect. It fills in some basic
gaps for those of us who didn't go to engineering school. The blurbs seem to be
targeting laypeople, but you'd have to be fiercely--one might say geekily--
interested in computers to find this book interesting. I couldn't put it down.
What the Doormouse Said: How
the 60s Counterculture Shaped the Personal Computer Industry, by John Markoff (Viking Adult, April 21, 2005). You
don't have to be obsessed with Silicon Valley to find Markoff's argument that
the 1960s countercultural revolution, the Berkeley Free Speech movement, and
psychedelic drugs were essential forces behind the birth of the personal
computer—but it helps. Markoff, a San Francisco-based technology writer for the
New York Times, was in high school in Palo Alto during
much of the time he chronicles here, so the territory is personally familiar to
him, and much of the material comes from his interviews with local luminaries.
Lots of great anecdotes; intriguing premise. Wish I'd thought of it.
Exploiting Software: How to
Break Code, by Greg Hoglund, Gary McGraw Addison-Wesley Professional
(February 2004). This book teaches the good guys what the bad guys are up to. It
covers things like how to make software fail, either by doing something it
wasn't designed to do, or by denying its use to the rightful users; techniques,
such as reverse engineering, buffer overflow, and provision of unexpected input;
and the various tools of the trade. Ultimately, the book shows how to design
software so that it is as resistant to attack as it can be. And to their very
great credit, McGraw and Hoglund throw a spotlight on the critical part of the
security problem: software quality.
And one for yourself: Complexity: The Emerging Science at the Edge of Order and
Chaos , by Mitchell M. Waldrop (Simon & Schuster, January 1992).
I just have to recommend one you probably won't find at the local
Barns & Noble. You might have to hit the used-book sites (or a
library), but it'll be worth it. It's an oldie but a goldie recommended to me a
few years ago by Alex Iskold, a founder of Information Laboratory, which created
the Small Worlds software analysis and visualization tool. It’s part history,
part philosophy; and very well-written—and particularly relevant to so much of
what software developers are struggling with today.
Have a happy, merry, or whatever.
John K. Waters is a freelance writer based in Silicon Valley. He can be reached
at [email protected].