Non-Fiction & Biographies

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Clifford Stoll: The Cuckoo’s Egg (1989)

Don’t let the year of this book fool you - it’s probably the best book on computing security. The epilogue is both timeless, and an amazing reflection on the purpose of computer security. Moreover, this book is a very enjoyable read. Cliff, like most of us computer/scientist types, writes with a quirky sense of humour, and isn’t afraid to relay his personal views within the book. For example, the quote below describes Cliff’s colleague Dave when he notices that the hacker used the –f option to the ps command on a Berkeley UNIX system (Berkeley UNIX doesn’t use the –f option, only AT&T UNIX does): “We’re watching someone who’s never used Berkeley Unix.” He sucked in his breath and whispered, “A heathen.”


Kevin Mitnick: Ghost in the Wires (2011)

If you really want to hear the detailed story of Kevin Mitnick, the famous hacker from the 1990s, then this is the book to read. It contains all of the details surrounding everything he did and what/how he thought (which he can now legally tell people). It is funny, educational, and suspenseful at times. While it’s a great read for anyone, it certainly helps if you have UNIX/VMS knowledge so that you can understand some of his hacks.


G. Pascal Zachary: Showstopper (1994/2009)

This book is all about how Windows NT was made by Dave Cutler’s team at Microsoft. It details the technology, the people involved, the culture, the struggles, and the stress (which led to many breakups and divorces). Make sure you read the 2009 reprint of it so that you can read the NEW afterword, which is a priceless reflection on the differences in the industry between 1994 and 2009 (Zachary hits the nail on the head beautifully).


Katie Hafner & John Markoff: Cyberpunk (1991)

This book details the exploits of three hackers who were caught and tried in a court of law: Kevin Mitnick (busted for lots of things including stealing VMS source code from DEC), Hans Hubner (obtaining programs and selling them to the KGB), and Robert Tappan Morris (a university student who created an Internet worm in 1988 that crippled many computers). It definitely tells some gripping stories, but I fear that many of the details are not true or embellished as a result. Kevin Mitnick wasn’t even interviewed because he requested $$ when asked. After the book’s publication, Kevin posted a letter on 2600 that basically said that most of the material on him was complete fiction. I imagine that this is probably true for the other parts of the book too. Regardless, I agree with the review on the front cover by Clifford Stoll: “An astonishing story.” It’s definitely movie material, and worth the read nonetheless.


Stephen Levy: Hackers (1984), Insanely Great (2001), The Perfect Thing (2006), Crypto (2001)

Stephen Levy is a very talented journalistic author - his books are incredibly well-researched and written. Hackers is the definitive history of the rise of computing and the hacker culture. Insanely Great covers the rise of the Macintosh and PC industry. The Perfect Thing examines the iPod revolution. And Crypto is an amazing book on the birth of cryptography and how the NSA tried to prevent it.


Paul Freiberger & Michael Swaine: Fire In the Valley (1984, 2000)

This book picks up where Hackers left off and is a fascinating recount of how the personal computing (PC) industry developed. It starts with how Altair kickstarted the industry with their Intel 8080 CPU-based PC running Microsoft’s BASIC interpreter, and then leads you through the flurry of activity that happened afterwards - including the companies that vied for dominance (IMSAI, Tandy, Commodore, Processor Technology, Apple and IBM) and what made them succeed or fail. Moreover, it discusses the importance of magazines (Byte, PC Magazine, InfoWorld, Dr. Dobbs), events (Computer Faires & Expos), and retailers (Radio Shack, ComputerLand) on the development of the PC industry.

In the revised edition (2000), it expands on what happened after 1984, including:

  • How IBM’s open hardware running PC-DOS (Microsoft DOS) killed CP/M, and legitimized PCs in the eyes of business (alongside the Lotus 1-2-3 spreadsheet software).
  • How Apple’s Macintosh PC introduced modern graphical computing, only to succumb to the dominance of IBM-compatible PCs running Microsoft Windows in the 1990s (because of when it was written, it only touches on the return of Steve Jobs to Apple and the pending release of Macintosh OS X based on NeXTSTEP UNIX).
  • How Sun Microsystems (UNIX PC vendor) rose to fame in the 1990s, introducing both Java and JavaScript (alongside Netscape) during the shift of personal computing to the Web.

Jim Clarke: Netscape Time (1999)

If you ever wanted to know about the browser wars of the 1990s, then this book is for you. It details how the disenchanted students who made Mosaic were recruited by the disenchanted founder of SGI (the author, Jim Clarke) to create Mozilla (Mosaic + Godzilla = the Mosaic killer). Officially called Netscape Navigator, it was the Web browser that ruled the 1990s until Internet Explorer 5 came along in 1999. It also details the ruthless tactics of Microsoft and the University of Illinois in trying to crush the company, and is chalked full of timeless phrases and concepts that make it more than just a book on the history of Netscape.


Scott Rosenberg: Dreaming in Code (2007)

This is the story about the development of an open source project called Chandler that was doomed to fail from the start due to poor execution and over scoping. But Rosenberg uses Chandler as the central theme only - the book is chalked full of computer programming history, concepts, quotes and other gems that make it an excellent read for anyone, especially programmers. Moreover, Rosenberg details how programming and the software development mindset has changed over the years from the 1970s to the 2000s.


Bruce Sterling: The Hacker Crackdown (1992)

Like Fire In the Valley, I also consider this book to be a continuation of Hackers because Sterling does a fantastic job of describing the hacker mindset, motivations, and culture in the late 1980s and early 1990s. More importantly, he discusses the inevitable clash between the authorities and hackers around 1990, as well as the events that led up to them. He focuses on the unconstitutional crackdown of hackers in 1990 by the US Secret Service (and others) where computers (including many BBSes) and data were seized. This crackdown, which was intended to deter future hackers, backfired and quickly led to the creation of civil rights organizations, such as the EFF (Electronic Frontier Foundation). The EFF continues to help protect many innocent hackers against being made into public examples. It also brought “cyberspace” into the public vocabulary. Another great offshoot of this book is that by describing the hacker culture of the late 1980s and early 1990s in such great detail, it predicts why Open Source Software (OSS) became such a hit in the 1990s and reinforces many of Eric S. Raymond’s arguments in his book The Cathedral and the Bazaar.


Emmanuel Goldstein: The Best of 2600: A Hacker Odyssey (2008)

This book is a compilation of the best articles from 2600 magazine (a hacker magazine) since 1984, with commentary from the father of free speech, Emmanuel Goldstein. It is a tribute to hackers and what they stand for.


Michael E. Brown: How I Killed Pluto and Why It Had It Coming (2010)

A few years back, you may have noticed the “Save Pluto” t-shirts. For those who grew up with Pluto being the 9th planet, it must have been hard to rework your understanding of the universe without a planet called Pluto. But that is science - as we learn more about the universe, we correct initial misconceptions, and that is a good thing. Pluto doesn’t belong as a planet, but as an object within the Kuiper belt. If you want to find out why, including the social drama surrounding the whole thing, read this book. Mike Brown is definitely a very likeable character, and you will probably find the same after reading his book.


Dylan Jones: iPod, Therefore I Am (2005)

This book is a hilarious and extremely informative recount of how the iPod has transformed our lives. Not only does Dylan cover all of the juicy details about the creation of the iPod and the transformation of the music industry, he examines why the iPod allowed us to relive the music excitement of our youth from a variety of different angles.


Roger Bourke White Jr.: Surfing the High Tech Wave: A History of Novell 1980-1990 (2010)

If you can get past the misplaced gushing at the beginning, this is actually a pretty good book. Novell basically brought PC networking and file servers to the masses, and grew to be a huge company (late 1980s - late 1990s) before they shrunk to the small niche company they are today. This book outlines why they were successful, as well as fills in a ton of historical information that most people who used Novell networks in the 1990s (myself included) wouldn’t have known otherwise.


Tim Jackson: Inside Intel (1997)

If you ever wanted to know the history of Intel and the drama within, this is the book to read. It covers the early years of Intel (when they mainly created RAM chips before the Japanese kicked their ass) and the things that led to all major product releases since (i.e. the Intel 4004 –> 8008 –> 8080 –> 8800 –> 8086 –> 8088 –> 80186 –> 80186 –> 80386 –> 80486 –> Pentium). It also covers the bad stuff about Intel, such as the horrid work environment, lawsuits (against employees, competitors, non-competitors, and even customers), and extremely shady/aggressive business practices. There are even some gems you wouldn’t know from observing the industry, such as Bill Gates not giving a rat’s ass about working with Intel until the mid 1990s.


Alastair Sweeney: BlackBerry Planet (2009)

This book is the first book on the market that details the history of RIM and the BlackBerry smartphone, as well as their impact on the world. It’s a good read, and covers both the good and bad things about RIM (which is important). However, it has the odd technical typo that I find annoying (the author is not extremely technical).


Edgar H. Schein: DEC is Dead, Long Live DEC (2003)

This is the story of the world’s most influential computer company: DEC. Although this book touches on the history of DEC, it focuses on why DEC failed as a company, which is fascinating in its own right and worth the read from the lessons learned. Ah, how I miss my PDPs, VAXen and Alphas…..


Andy Hertzfeld: Revolution in the Valley (2004)

In this book, Hertzfeld (part of the Macintosh team at Apple) gives you a glimpse of why geeks create new technologies, but he paints this picture using a series of experiences that he and others went through “growing up” in technology. I can relate to most of these experiences, and I am sure that many other geeks can as well. That is probably why I thoroughly enjoyed this book.


Guy Kawasaki: The Macintosh Way (1990)

I absolutely despise books about corporate management - luckily, this is not one of them. It’s a simple and funny depiction of what Guy learned while working at Apple. It’s chalked full of great historical info, cool quotes (there’s even one from Michael Jackson), and a massive amount of humour - for example: Don’t try to fool user groups. A user group can detect defecation before it passes through your orifice. There is no question that you will get lynched if you lie.


David Vise & Mark Malseed: The Google Story (2005)

This book is a must read for anyone who wants to understand the forces that are currently at work shaping our Internet experience. Internet search (and related services such as email) comprise the major factor propelling us into the future of the Information Highway. Oh, and yes, it’s about Google.


Brian Bagnall: Commodore: A Company on the Edge (2010)

This book contains everything you ever wanted to know about the rise of the Commodore computer company until they peaked in 1984. It is a long read, but entertaining. Topics flow beautifully to give you the big picture of what was happening at one of the most iconic personal computing companies of the 70s and 80s.


Bill Gates: The Road Ahead (1995)

In this book, Gates does a great job of describing the ascent of computing and how the Internet will change the world. He gives his own thoughts, but adds plenty of good information to illustrate and back up his points. This book is definitely NOT Microsoft propaganda, and shows how open and optimistic Gates is about computing and the Internet.


Rob O’Hara: Commodork: Sordid Tales from a BBS Junkie (2006)

This is a must read for anyone who grew up with computers in the 1970s, 1980s or 1990s. Unlike the title, it isn’t just about Commodore computers. Rob O’Hara talks from the heart about what it was like for him growing up with computers, including the “coolness factor”, the copyfests, the magazines, the BBSes, the friends that you make, and the assholes you meet. And all of this is done amidst the backdrop of the rapidly changing computer era of the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s.


Richard M. Stallman: Free Software Free Society (2002)

This is mandatory reading for anyone in computer science as well as anyone who values their freedom of speech. Stallman is the person who started the Free Software Foundation (FSF) and GNU (GNU’s not UNIX) movement. In addition, he is the current leader in the war against copyright evils in todays society. His philosophy is absolute and perfect in design: Free Software (as in “freedom”). This book covers all angles of Free Software, and doesn’t leave any gaps. By the end of this book, you will want to write Free Software. Although many people call FSF/GNU software Open Source Software (OSS) today, there is a big difference in their underlying philosophies that Stallman takes great care to describing in this book. In addition to this, you will learn why it is important to refer to the Linux operating system as “GNU/Linux” (I don’t do this though).


Eric S. Raymond: The Cathedral and the Bazaar (2001), The New Hacker’s Dictionary (1996)

The Cathedral and the Bazaar is the best book on Open Source Software that I have seen so far. In essence, it is a collection of papers (and as a result, a tough read), but you will learn how Open Source Software works as well as its purpose and future. The New Hacker’s Dictionary is a hilarious, yet accurate list of computer jargon/terminology/expressions that have made their way into mainstream geekdom - here are a few examples:

  • DAU n. German acronym for Dummster Anzunehmender User (stupidest imaginable user).
  • geek out v. To temporarily enter techno-nerd mode while in a non-hackish context, for example at parties held near computer equipment.
  • Hanlon’s Razor prov. Never attribute to malice that which can be adequately explained by stupidity.
  • heisenbug n. From Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle in quantum physics. A bug that disappears or alters its behaviour when one attempts to probe or isolate it.
  • lunatic fringe n. Customers who can be relied upon to accept your release 1.0 versions of software.
  • neophilia n. The trait of being excited and pleased by novelty. Common trait of most hackers, SF fans, and members of several other connected leading-edge subcultures including the pro-technology Whole Earth wing of the ecology movement, space activists, many members of Mensa, and the Discordian/neo-pagan underground. All these groups overlap and seem to share characteristic hacker tropisms for science fiction, music and Asian food.
  • octal 40 n. Hackish way of saying “I’m drawing a blank.” Octal 40 is the ASCII space character.
  • Parkinson’s Law of Data prov. Data expands to fill the space available for storage; buying more memory encourages the use of more memory-intensive techniques.
  • plokta v. Acronym: Press Lots Of Keys To Abort.

Richard Dawkins: Selfish Gene (1976), A Devil’s Chaplain (2003), Ancestor’s Tale (2004), The GOD Delusion (2006),The Greatest Show on Earth (2009)

Dawkins is truly a prolific scientist, evolutionist, and atheist. The Selfish Gene and The Ancestor’s Tale discuss the particulars of evolutionary biology (especially The Selfish Gene, where Dawkins examines how DNA and genes serve to replicate). A Devil’s Chaplain and The GOD Delusion explain the history and purpose of religion, and the damage it can cause. And finally, The Greatest Show on Earth is probably the best book to read if you want to learn about the evidence for evolution - Dawkins beautifully summarizes what took me 4 years of undergraduate studies to learn.


Douglas Adams & Mark Carwardine: Last Chance to See (1990)

If you liked The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, then you should read this book! Douglas Adams describes key endangered species after visiting them all around the world with a zoologist (Mark Carwardine). It’s incredibly funny, but very enlightening at the same time, and perhaps the best book ever written on why we should care about endangered species. Hopefully, you can get your hands on the multimedia (2 CDROM) version of the book - it only runs on Windows 3.11, but you can always install Windows 3.11 within an emulator. The multimedia version of this book consists of Douglas Adams reading the whole book in its original glory (hilarious!!!) alongside hundreds of pictures that matched each part of the book. It is almost like watching a movie or documentary. And there are a few surprises too :-).


Steve Wozniak: iWoz (2006)

Steve has always been an inspirational icon for most computer geeks, and this book shows you why - it captures the reasons why computer geeks create new technologies. I disagree with some of the advice he gives at the end of the book, but I understand where he is coming from when he gives it.


Sam Williams: Free As In Freedom: Richard Stallman’s Crusade for Free Software (2002)

In fine journalistic fashion, Sam Williams paints an accurate portrait (with plenty of references) of the great Richard M. Stallman. More specifically, this book captures Stallman’s unique personality and philosophy, as well as describes the true value of Stallman’s contributions. By the end of this book, you will have a better appreciation for Richard Stallman and Free Software in general.


Linus Torvalds & David Diamond: Just For Fun (2001)

This is Linus’ autobiography. Although Linus is not the most exciting of people (very lazy), I share many of his views. For example, while Richard Stallman argues that all software should be free (a philosophical ideal that I fundamentally agree with), I also share Linus’ practical view that proprietary software and free software can and should co-exist (at least for now).


Nolan Bushnell: Finding the Next Steve Jobs (2013)

Nolan Bushnell wasn’t a brilliant engineer who invented the concept of video games. Instead, he was the guy who took video games and brought them to the masses. In that respect, he was the most pivotal player in the industry. His first company (Atari) was also the first place where Steve Jobs worked, and in this book, you’ll learn Nolan’s secrets to finding and nurturing creative talent. Each chapter is essentially a piece of advice that he calls “pongs” instead of rules.


Leander Kahney: Inside Steve’s Brain (2008)

I have read many biographies on Steve Jobs - most of them paint a picture of Steve Jobs as a troubled orphan who grew up to be an asshole that was hard on the people that worked with him. While this is 100% true, of course, this book focuses on why Jobs was such a driving force at Apple, the music industry, the phone industry, and with Pixar. Here are some of my favourite quotes from the book:

  • Like Henry Ford once said: “If I’d asked my customers what they wanted, they’d have said a faster horse."
  • The most important thing Steve did was erect a giant shit-deflecting umbrella that protected the project from the evil suits across the street. (Andy Hertzfield quote)
  • Apple’s the only company left in this industry that designs the whole widget. (Steve Jobs quote)