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PhilB (UK)

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How Software Works: The Magic Behind Encryption, CGI, Search Engines, and Other Everyday Technologies
How Software Works: The Magic Behind Encryption, CGI, Search Engines, and Other Everyday Technologies
by V. Anton Spraul
Edition: Paperback
Price: £15.27

5.0 out of 5 stars Crystal clear introduction to the "how" of software, 7 Dec. 2015
This book is all about the “how” of software. You won’t find any practical manual-type information in here at all, so don’t expect to come out the other side of this book with a finely-honed knowledge of printer troubleshooting or anything like that. No, this is a very pure book that explains, in uncompromisingly non-technical terms, how computers achieve their magic.

Each chapter covers a broad but real-world relevant topic, such as web security, movie CGI, or mapping. After some background on each topic, Spraul sketches out the most important pieces of the algorithmic puzzle needed to produce the “everyday” results we now take for granted in movies, on the web, and in our smartphone apps. This might include a walkthrough of the logic behind a trapdoor function, of the sort that that makes public key encryption possible (which in turn makes internet shopping practical). Or perhaps the step-by-step process by which a rendering program builds up a realistic virtual scene in a movie, through ray tracing.

The writing is very clear and non-technical, almost without exception, and assumes very little prior knowledge. You do not need a technical background to understand this book, but you’ll want to spend some time to follow the examples and ruminate on them a little to really get everything. The examples themselves are plentiful, and include step-by-step illustrations of simplified situations that, when linked together, demonstrate how each algorithm works as a whole.

Given that this is a book on software, it’s slightly disappointing that the presentation is completely “dead-tree traditional”. By this, I mean that there’s no supplementary material in the form of working code snippets that one could play with, or interactive demonstrations. This feels like a missed opportunity, at least for those of us who learn best by tinkering. This is more of a wishlist item than a crucially missing piece, however.

Another minor criticism is the length of the book. It would have been nice to see a few more topics covered, or perhaps a little more detail in the final chapters. The material on searching could go into more detail in explaining how web search works, for example, including things like how robots/crawlers and ranking algorithms (e.g. PageRank) actually do their thing. As it is, it feels like the author ran out of steam before getting to the real crux of this topic.

All in all, it’s a very nice book, and I learned a lot about some interesting, highly-relevant techniques that I was only dimly aware existed. The material on encryption in particular outlines a clever and essentially mathematical topic that will speak to those of you who enjoy logic puzzles, for example. I’m not quite sure who the intended audience is for the book as a whole, but it’s definitely something to keep in mind for an aspiring techie – a teenager who is ready to have their horizons broadened, perhaps. The mechanically-minded, those with a fundamental curiosity about how things work, will also enjoy.

American Gods
American Gods
Price: £5.99

4.0 out of 5 stars Four Stars, 12 Oct. 2015
Verified Purchase(What is this?)
This review is from: American Gods (Kindle Edition)
A fun read with lots of interesting ideas... but perhaps a bit longer than it needed to be.

How Linux Works: What Every Superuser Should Know
How Linux Works: What Every Superuser Should Know
by Brian Ward
Edition: Paperback
Price: £17.47

3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Under-the-hood essentials, without the waffle, 12 Oct. 2015
How Linux Works 2 is a very nice technical read. I've been a user and administrator of Linux systems for over a decade now, and can safely say I learned a lot of new stuff from both angles. Newer users will probably get even more from it - although absolute beginners with less of a technical bent might be better off looking elsewhere.

The book fills something of a niche; it's not a standard manual-type offering, nor is it a technical system reference. It's more impressionistic than either of those, written as a sort of overview of the organisation and concepts that go into a generic Linux system, although with specific details scattered throughout that really get into the nuts and bolts of things. If you're looking for "how-to"-type instructions, you're unlikely to find everything you need here, and it isn't a comprehensive reference guide either. But if you're technically-minded and want to understand the essentials of how most Linux distros work in considerable (but not absolute) depth, with a bit of getting your hands dirty, then it's a great book to have on your shelf.

Various technical concepts are covered ably and concisely, and was I left with a much better feeling for more mysterious Linux components - like the networking subsystem - than I had before. There are practical details here as well though, and you'll find brief, high-level overviews of a number of useful commands and utilities that are sufficient to give a flavour for what they're good for without getting too caught up in the (often idiosyncratic) specifics of their usage.

That said, the author does sometimes slip into "how-to" mode, giving more details about how to use certain tools. While this is fine in moderation, the choice of digression is sometimes unusual - for example, file sharing with Samba is awarded a whole six pages (and ten subsections) of usage-specifics, while the arguably more fundamental CUPS printing subsystem has to make do with less than 2 pages. The discussion of SSH is also quite limited, despite the importance of this tool from both the user's and administrator's perspective, and desktop environments probably could have done with a bit more than a brief single-chapter overview. Still, this book really isn't intended as a manual, and the author has done well not to stray too far in this direction.

A common difficulty for Linux books is the great deal of variation between distros. Authors often struggle with where to draw the line between complete (but superficial) distro-agnostic generality and more useful, but audience-limiting, distro specifics. How Linux Works succeeds admirably in walking this tightrope, providing sufficient detail to be useful to users of more or less any Linux system without repeatedly dropping into tiresome list-like "distro by distro" discussions. This isn't always successful - the preponderance of init systems in modern distros has necessitated a long and somewhat dull enumeration of three of the most common options, for example - but HLW2 does much better at handling this than most books I've seen. The upshot is that the writing is fluid and interesting for the most part, without too many of the "painful but necessary" digressions that plague technical writing.

Overall, this book is an enjoyable and informative read for anyone interested in, well, how Linux works! You'll get an essential understanding of what's going on under the hood without getting bogged down in minutiae - making this a very refreshing (and wholly recommended) addition to the Linux literature.

The Artist's Guide to GIMP: Creative Techniques for Photographers, Artists, and Designers (Covers GIMP 2.8)
The Artist's Guide to GIMP: Creative Techniques for Photographers, Artists, and Designers (Covers GIMP 2.8)
by Michael J. Hammel
Edition: Paperback
Price: £20.73

4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Great, easy-to-follow intro to the GIMP, 18 Aug. 2012
The GIMP is a powerful image editor, similar in many ways to Photoshop, but with the distinct advantage of being free, open-source, and cross-platform (it will happily run on Windows, Linux and Mac). As with most high-end image editors, there's a bit of a learning curve, and The Artist's Guide to GIMP is a great way to start out on it. After a decent (but no-nonsense) introduction to the basics, it goes on to expose the reader to a wide range of image editing techniques via a set of focused how-to guides, each with detailed, easy-to-follow instructions. In the process, the reader learns a lot about using the GIMP effectively, building up an array of useful techniques that can be applied elsewhere as they go.

The guides are short, only a few pages long at their lengthiest. After a brief introduction explaining each technique, along with an example "end product", the reader is given a set of to-the-point step-by-step instructions to follow. These tend to be very clear, and given enough time, anyone should be comfortable following them. Once the basics are down, many of the examples are then extended, with further steps on possible enhancements that could be applied.

One criticism of the book is that it's relatively light on techniques for photographers. While there is a whole section on photographic techniques, most of these concern less serious tasks like adding filters and effects - there's much less on the sort of tweaking and touching-up that are core to photography work, and guides on handling RAW images and more advanced masking techniques would have been appreciated. That said, there is a good guide on restoring old photos.

Also, one or two of the examples aren't of the same standard as the rest of the book, with a few effects (like adding reflections in water) either falling flat, or looking very artificial. Of course, making photorealistic effects can be a very difficult task, and so perhaps it's sufficient to just cover the basics here and let the reader experiment on their own.

All in all, this book is easy to follow, and will get you up to speed with the GIMP in a short space of time.

The Linux Command Line: A Complete Introduction
The Linux Command Line: A Complete Introduction
by William E. Shotts Jr.
Edition: Paperback
Price: £18.80

6 of 6 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Well-written, comprehensive guide, 17 May 2012
The command line is a powerful tool that experienced computer users will really benefit from learning. When I first started using Linux about ten years ago, it was difficult to avoid the command line. It seemed like a chore at first, but after learning only a few commands, I found it to be a satisfying and efficient way of getting things done. This book provides a nice, usable introduction to the ins and outs of the Linux command line, along with an extensive survey of command line tools and their uses. The style is somewhere inbetween a reference book and a hands-on guide - the writing is friendly and interesting, but concise, and a lot of ground is covered. Solid examples are given for all of the common tools, along with a number of more obscure ones.

A real strength of The Linux Command Line is its task-based approach. Related commands are grouped together, with the discussion flowing logically from the simpler aspects of a task through to what can be achieved with the more advanced tools on offer. This guarantees that there will be something in every chapter for both beginners and more advanced readers alike. Indeed, the grouping of common commands with less well-known ones in each chapter means that there's lots of potential for discovering neat new tricks. A number of key commands are treated in a careful, detailed manner, which serves to equip the reader with some very powerful tools. I especially appreciated the extended sections on commands like find and sed, and thorough discussions of concepts like redirection and expansion. These had always seemed like something of a mystery to me, but now I know how they work, I use them all of the time! There is also a large section on shell scripting, covering over a quarter of the book, and chapters on essentials like basic system administration, text processing, and regular expressions.

I have only two real criticisms. The first is that a few important commands are glossed over more than I would have liked. The need to skim over some topics is understandable, given the wide scope of the book, but it can still be a little disappointing. For example, SSH is an extremely important tool for system administrators, but it only has a couple of pages worth of discussion, which is barely enough to scratch the surface. More detail on complex tools such as this would be welcome, perhaps at the expense of some of the less immediately-useful material in the lengthy shell scripting guide. My second complaint is that a few chapters are rather distribution-specific, choosing to specialise to popular distros like Debian and Red Hat. While it's unrealistic to expect every Linux distro to be covered, it would have been nice to see a slightly broader listing of distro-specific command line installation tools, for example. Happily, this criticism only applies to a handful of chapters, and the vast majority of the material is fully distro-independent.

All in all, The Linux Command Line will serve as a useful reference/guide for those interested in taking control of their computer with the command line. It covers a wide range of topics, but avoids being dry, list-y, or superficial for the most part, and should be suitable for beginners and intermediates alike. Whether you are interested in learning the command line from scratch, or simply want to improve your existing skills, this book will provide pretty much everything you need.

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