Last-Minute Shoppers

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 Don't 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.

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About the Author

John K. Waters is a freelance writer based in Silicon Valley. He can be reached at john@watersworks.com.

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