Monthly Archives: April 2013

Cyberselfish

Cyberselfish: a critical romp through the terribly libertarian culture of high-tech by Paulina Borsook (Public Affairs, 2000).

One day our Internet access was down for 3 hours in the library where I work, and I found this 12-year old book on a shelf and starting reading it. Paulina Borsook is a former writer for Wired, and the premise of “Cyberselfish” is that the computer industry (particularly in northern California) is dominated by a a libertarian worldview. She calls these anti-government, free-market enthusiasts “techno-libertarians”, whose individualist ethos doesn’t leave any room for government help or private charity. I’m not sure Borsook completely explains why so many high-tech engineers and executives are libertarian, but she does reveal some key insights. For example, she seems to feel that their hatred of government stems from their subconscious (though not necessarily correct) belief that the government is populated by the popular kids that beat them up for being nerds.  They also willfully ignore any factors outside of themselves that may have contributed to their success (such as government-provided infrastructure or being in the right place at the right time).  Having met a lot of folks like this in the engineering field, I think Borsook is right on the money.

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Filed under Engineering, Social Science

Interop

Interop: The Promise and Perils of Highly Interconnected Systems by John Palfrey and Urs Gasser (Basic Books, 2012).

This is a very timely book about a simple concept: interoperability. As our world becomes run by complex systems, many automated to a significant extent, interoperability between systems becomes more and more important. Yet we don’t always want complete interoperability; there are essential issues of privacy and security that we need to make sure are not overlooked. Attorneys Palfrey and Gasser show us both sides of interoperability in a variety of modern systems, elucidating the advantages and disadvantages for various constituents.

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Death comes to Pemberley

Death Comes to Pemberley by P.D. James (Alfred A.Knopf, 2011)

The long-awaited (I’m talking centuries) sequel to Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, Death Comes to Pemberley is rewarding in one sense: it has an actual plot.  A murder mystery is a big improvement on young women scheming to catch rich husbands. Sadly, P.D. James’ prose is just as convoluted and stilted as the 19th century novelist’s headache-inducing style.  I suppose she felt obligated to imitate the original. I expected the question of “who fired the gunshots” to be a major plot element but instead it was casually dismissed. The real story of the murder didn’t even come out in the trial; it was revealed afterwards in conversations among some of the characters. There were so many characters, often called by last name only, that it was tough to keep track of what was going on (though this is probably not a problem for fans who have read P&P many times). Overall it was disappointing, even though I wasn’t expecting much to begin with.

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Filed under Mystery, Uncategorized

When Gadgets Betray Us

When Gadgets Betray Us: The Dark Side of our Infatuation with New Technologies by Robert Vamosi (Basic Books, 2011).

This is an important and timely book about the security (or lack of security) of the technologies we use every day. It is an eye-opening look at the vulnerability of systems that in some cases we don’t even realize can be hacked (like tire pressure monitors and parking meters). Computer hacking and identity theft are only the tip of the iceberg; whenever you use mobile or wireless technologies, you are providing information about yourself that exposes you to clever criminals. Participating in social media and using mobile devices allows corporations and governments to track you and to collect and analyze data about you. Unlike Jaron Lanier’s 2011 book You Are Not a Gadget, this is not a philosophical manifesto but a window into the world that computer security experts work with every day. Vamosi offers a wealth of practical advice, and a balanced tone that recognizes that while most people will keep using the new technologies, they would prefer not to completely give up their privacy or personal safety.

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Filed under Engineering