hankrules2011

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Posts Tagged ‘computers’

Still Alive

Posted by Scott Holstad on September 11, 2017

Hi! I’m truly sorry I haven’t updated since 12/16. The past year and a half, actually the past three years, have been horrible for me, and 2016 was the worst year of my life and 2017 has been challenging as well. I just haven’t had the time, energy, stamina, strength, or even interest in book reviewing or blogging like I did for so many years. In fact, this is just a short post to let you know I haven’t died yet, although there have been some scares, and I’ll write a more comprehensive post hopefully sometime in the near future. Speaking of book reviews, Goodreads thinks I’m in the middle of 177 books right now, which is funny, because I don’t think I’ve written any reviews since 11/16. I haven’t had the energy or even interest, which is a first. I’ve been too concerned with staying alive. So, I’m only in the middle of about 20 books or so. And yes, my health has been that bad. So, I have four+ stacks of finished books sitting here in my office, some finished 10 months ago, and I’ve forgotten their plots even, waiting for me to write reviews I probably never will. Moreover, I buy Kindle books — a lot — and I’ve finished quite a few of those and many of them are awaiting reviews too, because I don’t close a book out and “finish” it until I’ve rated it and written some type of review, no matter how small. Thus, the backlog. So I’m sorry because I know from previous follower polls the vast majority of you have followed me for my book reviews, so I’m sure I’ve lost a ton of followers this year and I know I’ve let you down, but I’ve had to concentrate on me. You’ll understand more when I write a more detailed post sometime, assuming I get the time, energy, and strength. I may have to split it up. So, thanks to those of you who have stuck around. I’m sorry I haven’t been blogging or to any blog sites in months. It’s nothing personal. Just life. I hope everyone has been doing well. More later. Cheers!

 

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A Review of Fatal System Error

Posted by Scott Holstad on December 22, 2015

Fatal System Error: The Hunt for the New Crime Lords Who are Bringing Down the InternetFatal System Error: The Hunt for the New Crime Lords Who are Bringing Down the Internet by Joseph Menn
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Fatal System Error is an absolutely scary as shit, totally frightening book about today’s hackers and their ties to the Russian mob and how billions of US dollars in terms of identity theft and credit card fraud make their way to the Russian Mafia through this new breed of hacker. The author is a technology journalist who is a decent writer and the book could have been good, and at times, is, but it has some major flaws as well. First through, Menn, the author, traces the lives and paths of new cybercrime fighters in America and Britain, Barrett Lyon and Andy Crocker, as they develop ways to defend against hacker attacks and ultimately carry the battle to them. What they find out and how they did it is shocking.

Lyon, a young California computer geek helped a friend’s company stop something called a DDOS attack (denial-of-service) in the early 2000s. This was fairly new and some hackers had figured out they could start using their computers and other people’s computers in what later became known as bots and botnets to flood a person or company’s single server with data requests, thus bringing it down and bringing it offline. They initially started doing this to offshore gambling sites, where there was majorly big money to be made, and they demanded “ransoms” of some $5,000, $10,000, $20,0000, and as time went by, as much as $200,000, payable in hours, or else these sites would be shut down on a big game day and these betting sites would lose many millions of dollars. One of these major gambling sites heard about what Lyon had done and hired him to quickly defeat a DDOS attack against its company, which Lyon did. The thing I don’t really understand, since this became Lyon’s thing and since the author made such a big deal about this for about half the book and made such a big deal about Lyon’s computer genius, is that it seems to me that Lyon merely obtained and later bought large server farms to build up bandwidth and capacity to defeat the DDOS attacks – and it worked. But that’s not genius! Anyone could figure that out! That’s just brute force defense. There’s no brilliant coding. There’s not even any brilliant networking. No virus traps, no Trojans, no sniffers, nothing. Just server farms. Okay, whatever. He started his own company, with the backing of a number of these gambling companies he was now working for, all offshore, and which he rather stupidly and naively didn’t realize were themselves criminals, er, US mobsters. So, he started his own business with mob money. At some point, he rats them out, loses his business, somehow survives, starts a new business, and discovers that the world of hacking has passed him by, as DDOS is a thing of the past and he has to catch up if he’s going to sell his security skills. Lyon at some point started tracking hackers though various networks, finding that many of them were Russian punks, just teens. As part of this investigation, he came into contact with an English policeman named Andy Crocker, who was doing the same sort of investigation, but on an official basis for his government. Simultaneously, though acting independently, the two began to move in on the “bad” guys, watching as they transitioned from basic hacking to DDOS ransom schemes, then to identify theft and credit card fraud, and finally to government-sponsored cyber attacks on other governments and multinational corporations.

Andy Crocker was a British policeman, former military, now working a national task force dedicated to eliminating Internet crime. As noted, he came across Lyon while researching these hackers who were also hitting British gambling companies. He traced them, like Lyon, to Russia and other Eastern European countries, such as Kazakhstan, Latvia, and Estonia. Like Lyon, he was able to trace the originators of some of these DDOS attacks to actual hackers and found out some of their true identities and locations. He actually traveled to Russia to begin a cooperative effort with the FSB and MVD to locate, arrest, and prosecute these Russian hackers. And although it took great effort and a hell of a long time, they got three of the prominent ones, all young kids who had done a hell of a lot of damage and were responsible for millions of dollars of theft and destruction. But they obviously weren’t the only ones, by far. There were thousands of others and these were low level hackers. They wanted to go after bigger ones. And to their dismay, they found they couldn’t. One they tried to get was the son of the province’s police chief and he was untouchable. The biggest, someone called King Arthur, who was allegedly making a million a day, was unknown and unreachable and was a god in the hacking world. They eventually found his country and he was also untouchable. Andy was told by everyone that no one could go after him. That no one could arrest him, sorry. Someone big was looking out for him. Crocker came to the conclusion that either the Russian mob and or, and more likely, the Russian government was using and protecting the big Russian hackers. It was depressing. In fact, after Crocker returned to England, the Russian prosecutor of these hackers who was so gung ho about prosecuting more Russian hackers was found murdered!

Another depressing thing was just how deeply into Russian society this world of hacking and cybercrime runs. Apparently, St. Petersburg is a monster crime haven. Apparently there’s a mob organization so big and so powerful and so feared that they brazenly run ads advertising their services and skills openly and offer a home to over 100 big league hackers, carders, virus makers, botnet owners, scammers, spammers, crackers, etc. It’s called the Russian Business Network (RBN), and although it’s theoretically merely a network provider, it’s widely thought to be a government-sponsored, mob controlled crime syndicate that is extremely violent, horrendously violent, and very dangerous. And there’s not a damn thing anyone can do about it. It’s completely protected. It seems that virtually everything seriously big, bad, and evil goes through the RBN. No one can penetrate it. It’s a god.

The book goes on to assert that the battle against hackers and cybercrime has essentially been lost. That those who argue that real-time, live use of credit cards is riskier than online use are insane and dead wrong (which is interesting, cause I just read a carding book by uberhacker and now-Wired editor Kevin Poulsen stating this very assertion the author’s denying). That over 30% of America’s credit card numbers, as well as Social Security card numbers and other forms of ID, are in the hands of the Russian mobsters. This book was written in 2010. I imagine if this was true then, it’s probably worse now. It’s depressing as hell. Still, the two times I’ve been victimized by credit card fraud and theft, it’s not been online; it’s been live use theft.

The thing that really irritated me about this book, though, was that the author relied virtually exclusively on these two “experts” (one of whom I question is actually even a real expert) to write the book. Shouldn’t he have sought out sources from CERT, the much maligned (in this book) FBI, Secret Service, FBS (since he went there), big name hackers (go to the source), white hat hackers, other security professionals, etc.? Why rely on two people who may have had five years of varying degrees of success in the mid-2000s, neither of which I’ve ever heard of, and I’ve heard of many major security professionals, when there are so many sources to choose from? It seems short sighted and it seems like you’re limiting your book and your readers’ educations and experiences. I don’t like it. But that’s what he chose to do, so that’s what I have to live with. Still, I dislike it so much, and I dislike the fact that he focuses so damn much of the book on one figure who focuses almost exclusively on a hacking technique (DDOS) that went out of style even before the mid-2000s, that I’m knocking the book down from four stars max to three max. This could and should have been a much better and broader book and it wasn’t. I think the author did the reader a grave disservice. Not a great book with unusual sources, but slightly recommended if you want to wake up sweating in the middle of the night.

I found a number of interesting reviews, one of which impressed me so much, that I’m going to print it here without the author’s knowledge or permissions, but while giving him full credit and hoping he approves. I think he makes some excellent points about the book and they’re worth reading.

Joe White rated it did not like it · review of another edition
Shelves: on-shelf, techread

One star

Thank goodness for Goodreads reviews and bookswap. Reading the prior reviews I had low expectations for this book, and through swap I only wasted money on the postage.
The book can almost be divided into 3 segments. The author seems to only have interviewed two main participants against internet crime, and came away with an incomplete and incoherent understanding of any details of the problem. He almost attributes all the evil on the internet as having a denial of service as the source. Even during the second part of the book, which included the topic of identity theft, he was attributing most of the theft activity to DDoS. I think he just like to bring up the acronym.
Some of the problems I had with the book :

1. There were 90 pages attributed to crimes of US mafia figures, in which the dollar amounts of each occurrence were laboriously spelled out like a Bob Cratchet accountant listing personal losses and moaning about the inability of the FBI to pursue the Gumbas and delegate justice. Literary style could have been extended to a two-page spreadsheet report detailing the who, how, and how much figures. This segment of the book generated the feeling of watching a Godfather marathon movie session, and I felt really diverged from the intent of discussing internet crime in terms of how the internet is the enabling tool. I already suspected that mules carry money, people get killed, and identities are just handles to hide behind.

2. The swashbuckling crime fighting DDoS buster had a girlfriend to whom a few pages were wasted on. Since she was irrelevant to the overall topic, she could have been mentioned once for background, and not introduced as what might have become a significant character (but never did).

3. The mechanics of defeating a DDos attack were never detailed. The server farm set up in Phoenix had the bandwidth and number of servers to defeat an attack, but there were no details provided as to why it was specifically set up in Phoenix, what its components were, and how a direct attack defense was managed.

4. Because the author seemed obsessed with DDoS, he mentioned bots and botnets at least once on every 3rd page. He never described a bot to the laymen. He never made it clear whether a bot could consist of a virtual machine created for a purpose, or whether it had to be an independent 3rd party box belonging to an unsuspecting bystander. The author never fully explained the mechanics of a trojan horse implant, and didn’t clarify the difference between a virus and trojan horse. He also never explained what can be done at the individual user level to fend off trojans and viruses, except in a short subject dealing with phishing emails generated by spam during — DDoS attacks. He never clarified that DDoS isn’t necessary for phishing, and neither are bots.

5. Only once was it mentioned that one group switched to Macs because they seemed less susceptible to attack. He mentioned at least twice that you can’t sue Microsoft for providing a faulty OS combined with a poorly updated integrated browser, because purchasing a machine with Windows provides only a license to use the software and provides no firm sale transaction in which a person owns the software running on the hardware that they do own. He did mention the Microsoft monopoly on the OS, but failed to mention that Microsoft was prosecuted in conjunction with monopolistic powers only related to installation of a browser. It was never mentioned that Microsoft to this day controls hardware vendor access to Windows, and if the hardware companies dare install anything else but Windows or MS products, they will be heavily penalized in regard to being able to install Windows. If anyone says the Dell sells Linux, I must say that I’ve only ever been able to find minimal hardware boxes in the very basic desktop configuration, and in selecting one of those choices, there is a radio selection button for the OS that would full form advance to a Windows selection. Phone inquiries were even worse at the individual customer level. Only institutional server customers could purchase equipment with Linux pre-installed. Same story at all vendors except Lenovo, and then only through individual providers.

6. The author in the last 50 pages provides a conglomerated synopsis of headline events and trends regarding contemporary internet warfare across national borders. China is mentioned as a war opponent in cyberhacking, but it is never mentioned that China manufactures a significant volume of the circuitry used in electronics and could very easily, using the subversion techniques described by R.J. Pineiro, hide logic bombs and covert data skimmers within circuit boards and components. This could happen to Apple and all the phone manufacturers, so that their equipment could be subverted despite the installed software. Of course the title of the book was “the hunt for the internet crime lords”, so hardware subversion might have been beyond the scope.

7. Since the title was the “hunt for the New Crime Lords who are bringing down the internet”, some credit must be given to the author for remaining in the hunt venue, and not providing the extraneous technical details that readers might be led to expect by the book-cover blurb adulations such as “A fascinating high-tech whodunit”. The high tech here would be synonymous to an interstate highway providing speeders the ability to go faster.

8. The middle segment dealing with a physical legal pursuit presence in Russia, was in my opinion the redeeming revelation of the book. Life in Russia has never been painted as a Disneyland experience, but the adverse conditions both politically and physically presented here, really underscored the futility of pursuit of Soviet area bad guys in their home territory.

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A Review of From Counterculture to Cyberculture

Posted by Scott Holstad on October 10, 2015

From Counterculture to Cyberculture: Stewart Brand, the Whole Earth Network, and the Rise of Digital UtopianismFrom Counterculture to Cyberculture: Stewart Brand, the Whole Earth Network, and the Rise of Digital Utopianism by Fred Turner
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

This book was a massive disappointment. I had been wanting to read it for so long and had really been looking forward to it. I had heard about the Whole Earth Catalog and Whole Earth Review and their respective influences for years, and I had been on The WELL for over a decade myself (sch@well.com) and thought it was the best BBS ever devised, and of course Wired Magazine was awesome, so I knew this book had to be cool as hell. Boy, was I wrong. I actually almost finished it, almost made it 300 pages through before giving up in disgust. I don’t know how you could take such a COOL topic or topics such as Stewart Brand, 60s/70s counterculture, the invention and growth of the Internet, the importance of the Whole Earth Catalog, the influence of The WELL, the influence of Wired, the growth of the New Economy, and so much more, and make it SO DAMN BORING!!! God, this book sucks. It reads like a bad doctoral dissertation, which I guess should come as little surprise since Turner got his PhD at UC San Diego and taught or teaches at Stanford. He’s writing to his academic cronies and I guess he’s writing to impress them, but it’s definitely not for laymen, because he takes a chronology of events, times, places, people, things, happenings, big ideas, etc, et al, and bores you to tears while also beating you over the head with redundancy until you want to bash your head into a concrete wall. This is frankly one of the worst written books I’ve ever had the misfortune to read and I have no doubt that if ANY other decent writer out there had undertaken to write a book about similar topics, they could have written an engaging, enlightening, entertaining and cool book that would have captured most readers’ attentions. Instead, this garbage kills any interest I’ve ever had in the subject and I’m almost embarrassed now to have been on such a cool and influential BBS as The WELL after Turner has turned his destructive powers of total boredom on it. I’m giving the book two stars instead of one because the topic is good, but the book is not. Most definitely not recommended. I can’t stress that enough.

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A Review of The Transvection Machine

Posted by Scott Holstad on June 5, 2015

The Transvection MachineThe Transvection Machine by Edward D. Hoch

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Oh no! Vander Defoe, the inventor of the new transvection machine that’s going to save humanity, has been murdered! At least that’s how it appears. He goes to the hospital to have his appendix removed and the mechanical surgeon causes blood to start spurting out at the first incision and the human nurse helping out can’t save him. Since Vander is one of the president’s cabinet members (of extraterrestrial defense?), it’s important to get to the bottom of things. So the CIB is called in. The CIB stands for Computer Investigation Bureau, and their director is Carl Crader. His younger sidekick is Earl Jazine. They head from NYC to DC to meet with the president and be briefed by his assistant, Maarten Tromp. There are possible paths they could follow, but where to start? Crader decides to return to New York to look for a criminal who has escaped a prison on Venus named Euler Frost. He was in prison for murder and had been hooked up with a revolutionary group of people dedicated to eradicating the world of the computers and machines that have taken over society. He sends Earl to investigate Vander’s wife, Gretel, and his ex-parter — and one of her lovers — Hubert Ganger. Turns out they had talked about killing Vander just that day, only they don’t tell Earl that. They deny all knowledge. That path is taken away. Earl goes to interview the nurse, thinking she had to have been the murderer since everyone knows machines can’t murder, can’t make mistakes, can’t screw up. She denies everything, says everything went by the book. He interviews her doctor supervisor who stands up for her and the hospital, again saying it couldn’t have been the machine. What now?

But what is the transvection machine, you ask? It’s a device that transports anything and anyone from one place to another, whether it’s in a room, different cities, or possibly even different planets. Vander is the only one who knows how it works and he’s proven it works by transvecting a monkey from Boston to another city and by transvecting a Chinese girl from the US to India. The government is seriously interested in his machine, because if it can be proven to transport people between planets safely, then they can populate Venus and beat the Russo-Chinese at it, the country that is dominating Venusian populating. But there’s a dark secret behind the transvection machine.

Crader is concerned about Frost, because apparently he escaped from Venus last week and could have made it back to earth in time to kill Vander. Turns out Frost is back. The author gives us the story from everyone’s vantage point throughout the novel, which is interesting, but at times a little irritating as well. And he does try to kill Vander, but his plot is foiled when one of his assistants appears and saves him from his unsuspecting death. A CIB researcher has found out that the revolutionary group Frost was a part of has actually grown during the time he was on Venus and is headquartered on a small Pacific island known for tourism. Crader decides to go there to look for Frost. On the way, he meets a minister and they strike up a friendship. The minister decides to stay on the island with him, so they can have a good time together. And that is his undoing. The minister is none other than the leader of HAND, this group, and he kidnaps Crader, but only to have him return to the president to relay a message to him, that Gloria Chang has gone over to their side. Crader does this and the message is meaningless to the president. But things are starting to make sense to Crader. And also to Earl. He sees the nurse creeping along the street by the new White House, seemingly hoping not to be found, and witnesses her meeting someone in a parking garage. The man she meets is the doctor. Earl confronts him and the doctor attacks him and escapes. Sometime later, the nurse re-enters the operating room to look at the machine, which couldn’t have done it, and is murdered. By whom? The machine again? Earl is at the hospital looking for her and encounters the doctor, who he confronts again. The doctor pleads innocence. Just then, Earl looks up and sees Vander’s ex-parter in hospital scrubs and takes off after him. Meanwhile, HAND is planning to destroy the computers at the Federal Medical Center, to spark a revolution against computers and technology everywhere. And Crader has had plenty of time to think about HAND’s motivations and has doubts about computers himself now.

And that’s all of the plot you’ll get from me! If you want to know who murdered Vander, if HAND succeeds in blowing up the Federal Medical Center, if a revolution is started, what happens to Frost, what happens to Crader, etc., you’ll have to get the book and read it yourself. It’s a very short book. I read it in a day. It’s an easy read too. The science is hogwash, but if you can get beyond that, it’s an enjoyable story. And Vander’s wife, soon to be ex, is a drug addled nympho, who’s pretty funny. My only real complaint about the book is that the author is SO anti-computer, SO anti-machine, SO anti-technology, that he beats it into your damn head virtually every damn page! It gets old very fast. Talk about beating a dead horse. And this is sci fi!!! I understand, however, that the author is actually a mystery writer, so maybe he was anti-technology. This was published many years ago. Who knows? It’s just damned annoying. Still, as a lightweight, escapist read, it’s fun. Somewhat recommended.

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A Review of Fumbling the Future

Posted by Scott Holstad on May 8, 2015

Fumbling the Future: How Xerox Invented, Then Ignored, the First Personal ComputerFumbling the Future: How Xerox Invented, Then Ignored, the First Personal Computer by Douglas K. Smith

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I think this is an excellent overview of how Xerox created the first personal computer in 1973 and then did absolutely nothing with it, due to unbelievable incompetence, thus losing out on the biggest market share any company has probably ever seen and billions of dollars. It supplements Dealers of Lightning, which is an excellent book on Xerox PARC, the research facility behind the creation of the computer, and gives a behind the scenes look from the top level down of the company as a whole. Thus, I think the two books go well together, hand in hand. By 1973, PARC had created a system they called EARS (Ethernet, Alto, Research character generator, Scanned laser output). So, they invented ethernet, the PC (the Alto), the mouse, and the laser printer. They also produced the first bit mapped images on the first GUI displays, some of the first and easiest programming languages, the first easy to use text editor, and a host of other things. And all Xerox management did was pretend they didn’t exist. Cause Xerox Sold Copiers!!! What the hell were computers anyway? They were just glorified word processors for secretaries. (Wouldn’t that have given them enough business to start producing them?) By the time 1980 rolled around, it became clear that other companies were eating them for lunch and their market share had plummeted, and IBM was rumored to be investing in their own PC, so Xerox finally got serious. With the Star. Created by a group that was separate from PARC, Xerox’s embarrassment. When the Star was released, it cost about $12,000 and needed a $30,000 printer and God knows what else. And it wouldn’t run anyone else’s software. Meanwhile all of these little Japanese companies were creating cheap PCs with standardized parts that could run anyone’s software and use anyone’s parts. The Star was a disaster. Xerox was never the same. I seriously hope the morons at the top learned their lesson. Finally, I noticed this book was published in 1999, although first published in 1988 by iUniverse, which is a self publishing company. I have no idea why these authors self published. In my opinion, this book is good enough for a traditional publisher to have snapped up and published. Maybe they were just impatient, I don’t know. Regardless, it was a good book and certainly recommended for anyone interested in learning about the interesting history behind the first personal computer.

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A Review of Dealers of Lightning

Posted by Scott Holstad on March 3, 2015

Dealers of Lightning: Xerox PARC and the Dawn of the Computer AgeDealers of Lightning: Xerox PARC and the Dawn of the Computer Age by Michael A. Hiltzik

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I’ve heard of Xerox PARC (Palo Alto Research Center) for years now and of its importance, but this book really drove home just what a critical place PARC was for the development of the personal computer. It was an excellent, excellent book. I thoroughly enjoyed it.

Back in the mid-60s, Xerox decided they wanted to compete with IBM and AT&T by developing their own research labs in the hopes of winning prestige and a possible Nobel or two, just like Bell Labs did. They set PARC up with a virtually unlimited budget and told the director he could hire whomever he wanted. Pake, the director, had heard of one Bob Taylor, formerly of ARPA, the precursor of the Internet, and hired him to head his computer lab. Taylor instilled a fierce commitment in his employees, but had a very adversarial management style and made a lot of enemies around the company. Another key hire was Alan Kay, a programmer with a dream of creating laptops and one day tablets (30 years before they ever came out) which would be so easy to program, kids could do it. Soon PARC had the best and the brightest from Stanford, MIT, Carnegie Mellon, Harvard, UC Berkeley, Utah, etc. They came from all over, from the best computer science programs. And there were no deadlines and nothing to produce – it was like a giant think tank where you could just follow your dreams to see where they’d lead with unlimited funding. For the most part.

By the late 60s, one of the programmers had produced a mouse, ancient by our current standards, but radical by theirs. Also, they were producing GUI operating systems for point and click possibilities. By the mid to late 70s, the inventers had invented a graphical user interface, an operating system, overlapping windows, a text editor (word processor), a programming language, software, Ethernet for networking, a mouse, display, keyboard, audio, and a laser printer, which would be the only thing Xerox would go on to make money with. And that’s the crux of the situation. Xerox didn’t know what it had. Xerox did nothing with PARC. PARC embarrassed Xerox. The wizards at corporate were so far behind the times that change of that enormity just unnerved them too much to act, so they didn’t. In fact, they got rid of the R&D people who had created PARC, brought in new managers to run PARC, got rid of Bob Taylor (who had gotten too big for his britches), prompting a ton of resignations from his team members, and lost a lot of people who went on to form companies like 3Com, Adobe, SGI, and others. Xerox could have OWNED computing and they blew it! They literally could have been Microsoft, IBM, and Apple rolled into one and they blew it. The author tries to shield them from this criticism. He tries to say that as a copier company, they weren’t equipped to sell computers. Well, why invest in researching them, then? He tried to say you’d have to retrain 100,000 salesmen. Well, do it. Piss poor excuses, in my opinion. Xerox has no excuse for blowing things the way they did.

One last thing. I really enjoyed the chapter on the visit by Steve Jobs. Of course, it’s a famous story about how Jobs visited PARC, saw what they had, ripped them off, put everything in the Mac, and made a killing. Part of which is true. However, with his first visit, he was given just a main demo given anyone who would visit. Apparently he wasn’t impressed and he had the ear of the Xerox CEO, who was investing in Apple, so PARC got a call telling them to show Apple everything. Jobs and his crew went back again and this time got more, but not everything. Somehow Jobs knew this, and before Jobs was out of the building, the Xerox CEO was on the phone to PARC telling them to show them everything. This elicited a great deal of stress and agony in some Xerox employees, who thought they were giving away the store. (They were.) So Jobs went back and apparently went nuts when he saw the GUI interface, and his engineers also appreciated the mouse and networking, etc, et al. And so the Mac was born.

This book isn’t perfect. There are a ton of people to keep up with. It gets hard. Sometimes the book gets a little boring. But all in all, if you’re into computers and into the development of the personal computer, the story of how the first one was built before Steve Wozniak came along and claimed to do it is pretty awesome and the story of Xerox PARC is pretty awe inspiring. Definitely recommended.

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A Review of What The Dormouse Said

Posted by Scott Holstad on February 21, 2015

What the Dormouse Said: How the Sixties Counterculture Shaped the Personal Computer IndustryWhat the Dormouse Said: How the Sixties Counterculture Shaped the Personal Computer Industry by John Markoff

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This book was a fascinating history of personal computing in America, most specifically in Northern California, most especially in the Stanford region. I swear, I had no idea that Stanford played such a strategic role in the development of the personal computer.

The book attempts to tie together nerdie engineers with counterculture LSD druggies with free love types with antiwar activists with students with hackers and the mix is considerably hard to pull off, even for a writer as accomplished as Markoff. In fact, I would say that he fails at it. Still, he tries, yes, he does. He tries a chronological approach to things and soon we have computer science engineers dropping acid in what will become Silicon Valley, leading to who knows what kinds of creativity. But Markoff really concentrates this book on two or three people: Doug Engelbart and his Augmented Human Intelligence Research Center at SRI (Stanford Research Institute) and John McCarthy’s SAIL (Stanford Artificial Intelligence Laboratory). Another important figure is Stewart Brand, author of the Whole Earth Catalog. Finally, there was programmer extraordinaire, Alan Kay.

Engelbart had a vision and he pulled in people to create his vision. He envisioned a computer — this was the 1960s — that would augment how people thought and what they did. McCarthy also envisioned a computerized world, albeit a slightly different one. Brand envisioned a computer for every person, while Kay envisioned small computers — laptops of today — that were so easy to use, that small children could be taught to use them. And these men all pulled it off!

Engelbart plays such a large role in the book, that it’s nearly all about him, and I think that does the book a bit of a disservice. Nonetheless, it’s he who creates the mouse to use with a display and keyboard in the late ’60s. He was funded largely by ARPA and was critical in the development of the ARPAnet, the precursor to the Internet.

At some point, the book shifts to Xerox PARC (Palo Alto Reserch Center), the infamous Xerox research facility that had the most brilliant geniuses of the twentieth century under one roof and who literally did invent the personal computer as we know it to be. This was before Steve Wozniak and his famous claim that he invented the personal computer. Under Bob Taylor At PARC, Kay and the others who had shifted over there invented a graphical user interface, an operating system, a text editor (word processor), programming language, software, Ethernet for networking, a mouse, display, keyboard, audio, and a laser printer, which would be the only thing Xerox would go on to make money with. Xerox was so stupid, they never realized what they had in hand and they could have owned the world, but they didn’t. Stupid, stupid, stupid.

Markoff weaves various stories of people like Fred Moore throughout the book, attempting to capture the counterculture spirit, but it seemed a little lost on me. Most of the techies weren’t overly political. Most avoided Vietnam by working in a research facility that did weapons research (SRI). Most dropped acid at some point, but very few seemed to make that a lifestyle choice. I thought it was an interesting book, as the topic is personally interesting to me, but it wasn’t the most cohesively written book and I would have expected a little more from a writer of Markoff’s stature. Still, four solid stars and recommended.

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A Review of iWoz

Posted by Scott Holstad on January 26, 2015

iWoz: Computer Geek to Cult Icon: How I Invented the Personal Computer, Co-Founded Apple, and Had Fun Doing ItiWoz: Computer Geek to Cult Icon: How I Invented the Personal Computer, Co-Founded Apple, and Had Fun Doing It by Steve Wozniak

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I loved this book! I loved Woz! He seems like a really cool guy. So I was shocked — shocked — at the many instances of overt hostility toward this book by so many reviewers. Man, they hate it! They think the writing is terrible, even though it has a professional co-author. They think he’s arrogant and conceited. They think he over-inflates his worth. I couldn’t disagree more. I enjoyed the writing. I thought it was intentionally conversational and easy to read. What do people want — a damn textbook??? It makes tech easy for anyone to understand and I think that’s good. As to his arrogance, when you’ve done the things he has done — and very few people have — you have a right to be arrogant, in my opinion. He was the youngest HAM operator is the world, quite possibly. He very likely invented the personal computer and changed everyone’s lives forever. He built, solely, one of the greatest computers ever — the Apple II. He invented the universal remote. And he’s not entitled to be proud of his achievements? Give me a break! If I had done this, I’d sure to tooting my own horn, that’s for certain. And as for the few dissenters claiming he didn’t invent the personal computer, it’s plausible there were earlier personal computers, such as the Altair, but hobbyists had to put them together themselves, they didn’t have keyboards or screens — just lights and buttons. He really did create the personal computer as we know it. Of course, he didn’t get where he got without the help of Steve Jobs, but if anyone was ever an egomaniac, it was Jobs, not Woz. Jobs was the biggest narcissist ever seen, I believe. I don’t know how Woz could have worked with him for so long. I enjoyed reading about his upbringing, about his early phone phreaking, about constructing and selling blue boxes, about his educational efforts, about his reluctance to start a new company, about his desire to remain a geek forever and never go into management, his thoughts about other people both in and out of the Apple world. I loved this book! I again just don’t understand why so many people hate it. It makes no sense to me. This is what I want out of an autobiography — a reader-friendly, true life account of an interesting person’s life and exploits. Excellent. Strongly recommended.

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A Review of Steve Jobs

Posted by Scott Holstad on January 12, 2015

Steve JobsSteve Jobs by Walter Isaacson

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This is a wonderfully written book on a very complex individual, Steve Jobs, the co-founder of Apple and of Pixar. Apparently, he’s one of the greatest geniuses in history, revolutionizing entire industries and changing billions of lives. Among his revolutions include the personal computer (Macs), graphic design, the music industry and how we get our music (iTunes and iPods), cell phones, and tablets, as well as computer animated films. I mean, he was an amazing genius, a once in a century person. However, at the same time, he was the most narcissistic, entitled, ASSHOLE in the history of the universe, with a monster temper, no filters for other people, and the greatest DICKWEED on the planet. I couldn’t believe what I read about him. He screwed countless people over, including Steve Wozniak, his partner at Apple and one of the nicest people around, his CEOs, his board members, tons of his employees, his enemies — everyone. He viewed himself as a counterculture revolutionary, yet become a monstrously rich multi-billionaire with his own jet plane and mansions. He got pulled over for doing 100 one day on the highway. The cop told him if he got pulled over again, he’d go to jail. As soon as the cop left, he resumed doing 100. He never had a license plate on his cars. He thought he was above that and that standard rules didn’t apply to him. Instead of parking in the CEO spot at Apple, he parked in not one, but two (straddling) disabled parking spaces, just to be a jerk. When he was getting his liver transplant at a hospital in Memphis, he ordered something like 18 smoothies for him to taste test before finding one that was decent and sending the rest back. He’d order fresh juice at a restaurant and send it back relentlessly because it wasn’t fresh enough. He screwed some of his original Apple employees over (and best friends) by giving some stock options and others none. He’d go to restaurants when they were closed and demand they open and serve him and then he’d order something that wasn’t even on the menu. He was a bulimic, lifelong vegan who made everyone cater to his tastes. He drank carrot juice for months and ate nothing but carrots and turned orange. He initially thought his fruit diet was good enough to ward off body odors and didn’t use deodorant or anything like it and stunk like crazy until Apple went public and the board forced him to start showering once a week. He thought in terms of black and white. Everything was either a winner or total shit. Most everything was total shit and he would tell you that to your face. No filter. He was envious of Woz and was responsible for him leaving the company. He fought with people all the time. He was given up for adoption as a baby and always felt abandoned, but when he and his girlfriend had a baby girl, he turned his back on them completely until the state of California forced him to take a paternity test which proved he was the father and then forced him to start paying alimony. He was an obsessive design freak who believed in completely closed and integrated systems, which made for great products, but hurt his market share and his company’s bottom line. He had to have the best of everything. He never did anything people told him, not even as a child. His educators gave up trying to force him to do his schoolwork and let him do whatever he wanted. He went ballistic when Bill Gates ripped Apple off with Windows and then with everything else (like the Zune — remember that?), yet he himself ripped off the geniuses at Xerox PARC, getting from them three things — the graphical user interface (GUI) look of the operating system, the mouse, and networking, which he put into the Mac, transforming personal computers forever. I could go on and on, but I don’t have to. Isaacson already did. Just read his book. Jobs was a fascinating person and he created amazing things, but at what cost? Burned, tortured lives, careers thrown away, people discarded, no rules observed. I felt sad upon reading of his early passing, but if there is a hell, he’s definitely in it now. And I don’t feel too badly about that. I, for one, won’t say “RIP” to Steve Jobs. I’m glad to have and use and enjoy his creations, but I’m also glad he’s no longer on earth. Highly recommended book.

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A Review of The Innovators

Posted by Scott Holstad on January 9, 2015

The Innovators: How a Group of  Hackers, Geniuses and Geeks Created the Digital RevolutionThe Innovators: How a Group of Hackers, Geniuses and Geeks Created the Digital Revolution by Walter Isaacson

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This book was a fascinating and entertaining history of the progression of the computer and related things, such as the Internet. I learned a lot and I’m glad I did.

Isaacson starts out with Lord Byron’s daughter, Ada Lovelace. That’s right — in the age of the Romantics some 150 years ago or so! She’s generally credited with starting the computer revolution, as she envisioned a computing device based upon Charles Babbage’s Analytical Engine. Her writings on this “engine” show what appears to be the first algorithm designed to be carried out by a machine, and as a result, she’s often credited with being the world’s first computer programmer. Isn’t that fascinating?

The book tracks the progression of computing from the 19th century into the 20th and then into the 21st. Up comes Alan Turing, the ENIAC computer, which employed the first real programmers in history — all of them women! — the invention of the transistor and the microchip, Ethernet, and all of the wonderful inventions at Xerox PARC, where they invented the graphical user interface (GUI) for the computer screen, doing away with the command line prompt, the mouse, and networking, all of which was essentially stolen by Steve Jobs for the creation of the Mac. Of course, then Gates stole from him and Jobs was beside himself with the audacity. Ah, karma.

The book also introduces Gordon Moore, the originator of Moore’s Law, that states that technology will double in power and possibilities every 18 months. In addition, the author hits on Grace Hopper, Andy Groves, William Shockley, Gates, Jobs, Woz, Tim Berners-Lee, the inventor of the worldwide web, Linus Trovalds, the inventor of LINUX, and the people who started Google. It’s an inspiring lineup of inventors and — key word here — collaborators. The author believes strongly that collaboration was the key to computing development and he might be right. He provides plenty of examples of people toiling away by themselves, only to be forgotten by history for missing the boat on what would have been a great product.

The reviews of this book are pretty good. However, I read one stunning one recently that said this was the worst history he’s ever read and that the biographies are mediocre. He even criticizes the author’s treatment of Ada as being insufficient. I thought he did her justice. I’ve never even seen her mentioned anywhere else before. He spends a lot of time on her here. This reviewer was on acid and I let him know what I thought of his lousy review. If you’re remotely interested in how PCs came to be, how the Internet was created and evolved, etc., et al, this is definitely a book for you to read. Recommended.

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