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When Computing Got Personal: A history of the desktop computer
When Computing Got Personal: A history of the desktop computer
by Matthew Nicholson
Edition: Paperback
Price: £14.99

5.0 out of 5 stars A gret story, brilliantly told, 29 April 2014
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Matt Nicholson has chosen an interesting time to publish a history of the personal computer: the facts surrounding the rise of the PC are sufficiently well established that its story can be clearly told, but the demise of the PC is too current to permit a reflective discourse.

Wisely, Nicholson avoids this trap, concentrating instead on the three decades from the early 1970s in which PCs moved from a pipedream to being centre-stage in everyday life and work.

Nicholson is a journalist and this book is proper journalism. The story is big enough not to need sensationalism and is presented here as it happened, in a clear and breezy style with plenty of detail and a welcome lack of guess-work, navel-gazing or theorising.

To be clear, ‘When Computing Got Personal’ is about the PC business – the complex and evolving relationships between IBM, Microsoft and Apple is a constant theme, with supporting roles played by the usual suspects. It’s a story I thought I knew pretty well, but Nicholson’s depth, breadth and perspective provided plenty of food for thought and kept me engaged at all times.

This is a great read for anyone sitting at a desktop computer, wondering how it got to be what it is. You’ll need a certain familiarity with IT to keep up, but in return you’ll get a hold on one of the most important histories of the past fifty years.


Naked Statistics: Stripping the Dread from the Data
Naked Statistics: Stripping the Dread from the Data
Price: £10.44

10 of 10 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars An enjoyable stats primer/refresher, 16 Nov. 2013
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Naked Statistics is a good way to remind yourself what statistics is about, or if new to the subject, get a solid grasp of the basics. It is a fine complement to a dry textbook, in that it covers the groundwork in a clear, approachable and entertaining way that is not overly mathematically demanding. Appendices delve deeper into theory and can be read or ignored as the reader wishes.

The first two thirds of the book is particularly good, breezing competently through key statistical concepts up to and including the Central Limit Theorem.

Many people may be drawn to the book because of the growing importance of 'big data'. Wheelan takes this topic on board with a focus on regression analysis, and is not afraid to discuss the pitfalls as well as the benefits of the more abstract 'darker' arts of statistics. However, given the choice between a candid acknowledgements of the fundamental limitations of statistics and an uncomplicated view that 'as long as its done well all will be fine', Wheelan goes in the simpler, more positive direction, even when cheerfully supporting claims that over half of the top-flight peer reviewed scientific papers that draw conclusions from the techniques he proposes are likely to be wrong.

Instead, Wheelan argues that brilliant statistical research simply requires brilliant researchers (guess who?) - and that brilliance is not about being good at the maths, but about a having a creative and intuitive grasp of what works. There are two problems with this. One is that observant readers may well spot flaws in the exemplars Wheelan presents as brilliant. The second (and more important) is that the power of statistics is meant to be its ability to reveal insights that are drawn entirely objectively, yet it is clear that many mistakes in statistical research are due to failings in the researchers' subjective and interpretive skills - in other words, the maths disappears - advanced stats is a matter of judgement (so why not rely on judgement and abandon the somewhat bogus claim of objectivity?).

Consequently (and slightly disappointingly), Wheelan's concluding chapter is all about the amazing contribution statistics will continue to make to solving the world's most pressing problems, rather than a more reflective assessment of its strengths and weaknesses.

All this said, this is a likeable and workmanlike book that treats a potentially dry subject with significant flair.


The Signal and the Noise: The Art and Science of Prediction
The Signal and the Noise: The Art and Science of Prediction
by Nate Silver
Edition: Hardcover

163 of 168 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars More noise than signal, 28 Nov. 2012
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Mr Silver clearly knows what he is talking about, but I'm less sure he knows how to talk about it. I assume he set out to write a chatty, non-challenging book, but the result is light on substance and structure.

The Nobel prize-winning physicist Niels Bohr famously said 'Prediction is very difficult, especially if it's about the future'. This pretty much sums up the first half of the book. Yes, the detail about the financial crisis, weather forecasting, earthquakes etc is mildly interesting, but in relation to prediction, you will be wading through a lot of noise to extract the signal ('human nature makes us over-confident predictors', 'without either good theory or good empirical data, you may as well just guess','the most confident pundits are usually the worst' etc).

The substance of the book comes in twenty pages in the middle, where Silver introduces Bayesian logic (I learnt in maths classes at school when I was fourteen so it wasn't new to me, and it doesn't need 200 pages of build up). The best section is where Silver contrasts Bayesian logic to Fisherian logic. Fisher created the maths that is used almost universally in medical and social science research to prove the efficacy of a treatment or theory. Silver explains how flawed this maths is - which is presumably why two thirds of the positive findings claimed in medical journals cannot be replicated. This is pretty heady stuff.

Silver claims that the second half of the book is about how to make predictions better. It is mostly more examples of failure, this time in chess, investment, climate and terrorism, with a few asides that might be considered signals ('testing is good', 'groups/markets tend to make better predictions than individuals'). The exception is the section on poker, which delivers the strongest message in the book: good gamblers think in probabilities (rather than dead certs) - when these probabilities diverge from the odds on offer by a suitable margin, they may place a bet. Bad poker players lose a lot more than good poker players make. The best is the enemy of the good...

Of course, the point of the book is that there is no silver bullet - good prediction requires detail, nuance, hard work, honesty and humility. It would be wrong to expect a check list for success at the end, and naturally, there isn't one. Even so, you are left with a craving for clarity.

'The Signal and the Noise' is a pleasant enough read, but it is mostly anecdote. Rather ironically, you are left to sort out the signal from noise yourself.
Comment Comments (3) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Jun 1, 2016 6:32 PM BST


The God Delusion
The God Delusion
by Richard Dawkins
Edition: Paperback

2 of 7 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Enjoyable - but flawed by serious errors of logic, 10 April 2012
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This review is from: The God Delusion (Paperback)
There are two parts to `The God Delusion'. In the first part, Dawkins presents his central argument that `there almost certainly is no God'. Whether you agree with this conclusion or not, Dawkin's argument is sadly flawed as I will explain. The second part presents arguments against the notion that religion is a force for good.

The central argument is that any explanation of existence must deal with two highly unlikely realities - let's call them the miracle of biology (how life started and has been able to create such improbably complex beings as us) and the miracle of physics (where the universe came from and how it happens to be configured to support life). Dawkins argues that a good explanation must deal squarely with the `statistical improbability' of these miracles. Unsurprisingly, Dawkins is pretty sure footed on how science explains the miracle of biology. He is less strong on the miracle of physics (drawing unconvincingly on the philanthropic principle and the theory of multiverses) but at least deserves the benefit of doubt for his efforts. He then argues that religion attempts to explain away the improbability by hypothesising a supernatural creator. This, he argues, does not work because it simply begs the question - by what statistically improbable means was the supernatural creator created. `It is obviously no solution ...( ie to the two miracles) ... to postulate something even more improbable ... (ie the existence of God) ...'.

Here then, lies the simple but gross error in this carefully constructed argument. In nature, Dawkins argues, statistically improbable things don't really happen. Complex things require simple explanations. Science can provide a simple explanation (for the two miracles) but religion can't because God must be very complex to do all the things it is claimed God has done. Ergo, God just isn't natural and so can't exist. Bless you Mr Dawkins, but you seem to have missed the point. God is supposed to be supernatural, so using the techniques of science to show that God can't be explained scientifically doesn't really get you anywhere. You've written 150ish pages to say `the problem with the supernatural is that is just ain't natural'. Any first grade philosophy student should be able to spot this error. You may not find the supernatural explanation satisfying, but you get nowhere by showing it is scientifically unsound, unless you propose that science is the only way to explain things (an argument Dawkins has studiously avoided, probably because it sounds dangerously religious).

There are other problems with this book. Dawkins repeatedly reduces religion to a theory that explain the origin of existence, failing to see that for many people, such lofty issues are less important that the cultural, social, moral and habitual context that religion provides in their lives. The fact that Dawkins can argue that this context is not always for the good is not the point - the point is, it exists. His cultural myopia reaches its zenith in his plea that we should never label a child as a `Christian child' (or Jewish or Muslim etc) because it suggests that such a child must have adopted Christian theology. Wrong again Mr Dawkins - this author is sternly atheistic intellectually, but is culturally Christian as an accident of birth - I was a Christian child as well as an atheist.

The God Delusion is not Dawkin's best book, but there is much good in it. Dawkins excels in finding the weaknesses in the arguments of others. Physician, heal thyself.


A Short History Of Nearly Everything (Bryson)
A Short History Of Nearly Everything (Bryson)
by Bill Bryson
Edition: Paperback

2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A six-star book, 24 Feb. 2012
Breathtaking in scope, audacious in ambition, thoroughly researched, impeccably honest, and remarkable for its lightness of touch with such weighty matters, you wouldn't be human if you didn't marvel at Bryson's achievement - a 'short history' romps through the main strands of science that try to explain what and where we are, how we got here, and what we mean by 'here' in the first place. Yes, it meanders a bit, but that's part of its charm, true it occasionally fails to grasp the conceptual nettle as firmly as it might, ok, it contains a few well documented errors, none of which are especially material, and for sure, you could knit-pick over some of the topics it doesn't cover, but have no doubt, this is an engaging, approachable and highly informative book that does that rare things - achieves what it sets out to achieve.

Above all, and what makes a 'short history' a must read for anyone interested in science, including teachers, science-writers and many scientists themselves, it reveals, without really trying to, how science really works. Time and time again, Bryson explains how remarkable insights get shelved for generations because leaders in a field find them inconvenient, how breakthroughs that could save thousands of lives are rejected because their proponents are wearing the wrong tie, how bad ideas perpetuate for decades for no better reason than bigotry, and how scientists throughout history have bickered and backstabbed and bullied their way into the limelight. In other words, scientists are human, and the story of science is a human and social one, not just an objective (and rather dull) pursuit of objective truth. Bryson's honest insight into how scientists do science is just as valuable as his marvellous explanations of the science they do.


Civilization: The Six Ways the West Beat the Rest
Civilization: The Six Ways the West Beat the Rest
by Niall Ferguson
Edition: Hardcover

13 of 16 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars All is not what it seems, 7 May 2011
You start by believing that this book is about Furguson's killer apps: competition, science, property, medicine, consumption and work. But you conclude by realising it is actually about six regions of the world: China, the Middle East, S. America, Africa, the Soviet bloc and western Europe and why it is that America has come to eclipse each region (in Furguson's view) to represent the defining glory of civilisation.

The deceit is maintained well enough through the first three chapters, and is always entertaining and informative, but you will start to see through it by the chapter on medicine (Africa). There are over fifty pages in this chapter but only seven are about medicine. After stating that colonialism was good for Africa Ferguson spends the rest of the chapter berating the cruelty and destruction of Europe's racist and eugenic activities in the continent. All fair enough but hardly supporting his point and nothing to do with the beneficial effects of medicine. In fact, the discussion of medicine only touches on increased life expectancy, largely resulting from a decrease in infant mortality - again, solid stuff, but hardly the whole story. We are way off message by this point.

You get the same feeling in the chapter on western Europe (sorry, work). Furguson argues that the protestant work ethic is a killer app and seeks to explain why religion has remained strong in America yet declined in Europe. His answer is competition: Europe's churches are strongly linked to the state and there is little competition, whereas America's constitutional secularity has allows many different church movements to compete for members. The problem here is that his history is wrong. England's towns and cities are littered with once thriving non-conformist churches now converted into private homes or sports halls, and atheism has tripled in America over recent decades to 20% of the population.
Furguson's most compelling argument is that America is in danger of decline if it turns its back on these killer apps: in other words, if it loses confidence in the things that make it great. This interesting and pertinent argument receives about two pages of attention, almost as an afterthought, before being rather disappointingly glossed over as he races to his end.

And this is why this book, which in many ways is excellent, fails to deliver. It's key arguments are not developed, too many loose ends are left dangling, you get a feeling that Furguson the historian doesn't really understand the contribution that science and medicine have made to the modern world, obvious contradictions are not explained and ultimately the literary device of deceit is not sufficiently well maintained - you realise that the books is just a defence of the US way of being, and a gentle warning that it's hegemony may be under threat.


This is Social Media: Tweet, Blog, Link and Post Your Way to Business Success
This is Social Media: Tweet, Blog, Link and Post Your Way to Business Success
by Guy Clapperton
Edition: Paperback
Price: £12.99

2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars A pleasant read, but light on content, 16 Feb. 2011
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It's nicely written and contains a few helpful pointers, but if you know how to make a plan, and understand that Facebook, Twitter, Bebo etc are just new ways to do what you already do anyway (you do talk to your customers don't you?), you won't come away feeling you've learnt a lot.

It's a small format book with lots of white space and none of the fourteen platforms discussed gets more than seven pages (Facebook gets five), so if you've already heard of one of them, you probably know what the few pages will tell you. There is room, even in such a small book, for a few more hard facts and a little more concrete guidance than Guy gives here. It also spends rather too many of its few pages presenting some urban myth-style 'gotcha's' that you would never do anyway.

On the plus side, it's cheap, small, friendly and very easy to read, and admittedly perfect if you've only got an hour between now and your first social media strategy meeting, especially if you think that Picasa did all those weird paintings or Plaxo wrote 'The Republic'.


The Developer's Guide to Social Programming: Building Social Context Using Facebook, Google Friend Connect, and the Twitter API, the (Developer's Library)
The Developer's Guide to Social Programming: Building Social Context Using Facebook, Google Friend Connect, and the Twitter API, the (Developer's Library)
by Mark D. Hawker
Edition: Paperback
Price: £27.99

3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
1.0 out of 5 stars Very disappointing, 16 Feb. 2011
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This is possibly the most disappointing book I've bought in years.

I'm sure it's accurate - in fact I know it is for Facebook because soon after starting to read it I gave up and went online to read Facebook's own documentation instead. And that's my point: Hawker's book is just documentation, and it's less accessible than the online stuff that's free.

Nowhere did I get a sense of being taken through a roadmap, with some quick wins that I could start with, followed by the layers of detail and sophistication that would allow me to develop my proficiency in stages. Therefore I had to plough through 40 pages on Facebook API's, FQL, XFBML oAuth etc before finding out there are simple Facebook widgets that take minutes to implement and help me build confidence and enthusiasm quickly. Nowhere was there a real sense of context. A chapter would begin with a few pages of high level positioning, and then go straight into a systematic trawl through the reference material. For example, the first chapter on Facebook begins with two pages of benefits and then starts with 'The process for creating a Facebook application is much the same as for regular Facebook Platform applications'. Am I supposed to understand this distinction?. Nowhere did I get any guidance about the relative payoffs of different features - what I need to know now, what I need to know before I deploy my first feature, and what I can safely come back to later. So the first chapter on Twitter, after a quick intro page, presents ten pages listing methods and parameters, all of which I'm sure I can find in a free Twitter white paper.

There was a time when books like this were useful: a time before the Internet and social media.

Oh! and please be aware that all the code samples are for PHP devs only. A fact that could have made it into the title.

Unless you have no access to the Internet, you are better off with the online docs.
Comment Comment (1) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Mar 29, 2011 9:38 PM BST


23 Things They Don't Tell You About Capitalism
23 Things They Don't Tell You About Capitalism
by Ha-Joon Chang
Edition: Paperback

4.0 out of 5 stars Historical fact fights back against dogma, 16 Jan. 2011
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This is a fascinating and persuasive if not totally compelling read. Ha-Joon Chang's central premise is that, while capitalism has been a force for good over recent centuries, its purest expression in the form of free-market capitalism has done the world no favours. Since the west's adoption of free-market practices, economic growth has dropped significantly, and their imposition on Latin America and Africa caused decades of stagnant or negative growth. At the same time, some Asian and some European economies, with their different take on capitalism, have performed much better.

Ha-Joon Chang is at his best when he brings historical fact up against the dodgy doctrine of free-marketeers, and history wins each time. He's also very good at exploding the myth of post-industrialism, with convincing arguments about the dangers of service based economies in a world where the richest nations are also the most heavily industrialised.

It's clear that he knows that the whole fabric of mainstream economics is built on some very questionable axioms. He shows that the concept of `rational economic man' is a fallacy, but doesn't really getting to the heart of why this is so fundamental to a critique of capitalism. And despite a moral commitment to a sustainable relationship with the environment, he completely ignores the damage caused by mainstream economics' failure to treat natural resources as assets. In a book whose title addresses capitalism (and not just free-market capitalism) these are surprising omissions.

Readers may struggle to go with him as he claims that the washing machine has changed the world more than the internet. His broad premise is sound enough, but he is clearly inviting ridicule when he claims that the internet is only five times faster than a fax machine, so is hardly revolutionary. Having previously explained the hugely liberating effect of mundane domestic appliances on women in large parts of the world, he seems to forget the huge social and economic benefits the internet has already had on large swathes of humanity still unable to afford washing machines.

Nevertheless, Ha-Joon Chang's insights are as refreshing as his clear, uncluttered writing style, his pedigree and humanity are unquestionable and his challenging, authoritative, highly accessible and impeccably researched arguments make this book worth anyone's time.


Monsoon: The Indian Ocean and the Future of American Power
Monsoon: The Indian Ocean and the Future of American Power
by Robert D. Kaplan
Edition: Hardcover

23 of 24 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A compelling and insightful trip though the fortunes of the Indian Ocean region, 20 Nov. 2010
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Kaplan's gift is storytelling: he weaves together his grasp of history and the geo-politics of the Indian Ocean region with here-and-now accounts from real people and real places to present an intelligent and persuasive story: that the 21st century will belong not to the Atlantic or Pacific, but to the countries that fringe the Indian Ocean. His knowledge is vast and his insight clear and balanced, and his ability to mix global and local issues without ever losing the plot make this book a joy and a rare find.
To a European reader his American perspective on the region is fresh and enjoyably free of sentiment. On the downside he is unable to focus his considerable analytic skills on the impact of his own country in the region, and so presents the US as being uniquely benign (a view few in Vietnam would share), and in general, his lack of discussion of America's circumstances and current problems make the book's title something of a misnomer - it has disappointingly little to say about the future of American power. He is also capable of being partisan, presenting a favourable review of Indonesia's recent history without ever referring to East Timor.
Nevertheless, the strengths easily outweigh the weasknesses making this a fine and highly commendable read fully worthy of five stars.


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