First Monday

First Monday Reviews: new books

Whitfield Diffie and Susan Landau
Privacy on the Line: The Politics of Wiretapping and Encryption
Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 1998.
cloth, 342 p., ISBN 0-262-04167-7, $US25.00
MIT Press:

Confused about cryptography? Concerned that your conversations - electronic and otherwise - are being "heard"? Uncertain about the Clipper chip (but you assume that it has nothing to do with certain kinds of 19th century sailing ships)? What is a wiretap? Whitfield Diffie and Susan Landau, in this excellent book, carefully explain the spooky and highly political world of encryption, clipper chips, wiretaps, and other elements of "information warfare". Very well written, it can be read by almost anyone with pleasure; the second chapter, for example, on the essentials of cryptography does not require an advanced degree in mathematics. The FBI, organized crime, communists, the National Security Agency, the U. S. Supreme Court, and others all receive their due in this book, without sensational fanfare. For those well versed in cryptographic matters, this book places many of the current debates on privacy into a proper historical perspective. It manages that feat by describing current technological capabilities in terms of what has been done in the past with a wealth of fascinating (but not overwhelming) detail. The ten chapters of this book are simply the best explanation of security and privacy matters for anyone, expert or novice. If you're interested in these issues, this book is a great place to start understanding the historical and political context of our current debates on privacy. - ejv

Judy Heim
Internet for Cats: A guide to how you and your cat can prowl the information highway together
San Francisco: No Starch Press, 1996.
paper, 205 p., ISBN 1-886-41107-7, $US8.95
No Starch Press:

So you thought you had seen every book written about the Internet. You've read the Dummy guides, studied the Internet Bibles and perused the All About's ... but somehow I bet you've missed The Internet for Cats. Over two hundred pages of purrfectly good facts for that cat in your life. As the publisher states in the preface "If you've ever spotted Fluffy sitting on your keyboard, staring wide-eyed at the screen or battling the mouse around the desk, you know that cats have an enduring interest in computers. No other appliance since the electric can opener has fascinated cats to such a degree." Chapters such as "Computers are nothing but big cat toys" and "On the Internet, no one knows if you're a dog, but if you're a cat ... " provide clever quips and humorous stories but in between these word plays, there are actually some solid tips and techniques for sensible use of the Web. Included is information about how to find a service provider ("don't tell them you're a cat; they may not accept your credit card."); how to send e-mail ("you can use special cat emoticons to express your cat emotions [samples included]"); a variety of interesting cat Web pages (the amazing fish cam!); and how to find practical medical advice in cyberspace ("It's 3am and you think you're suffering from radiation sickness. After all, you fell off the computer monitor twice while taking a nap that day.") I tested some of the sites with my cat in my lap and she actually woke up once when I found a site that had cat meowing noises. This was impressive. Interspersed throughout Internet for Cats are some wonderful tips for the cat net surfer. My favorite was "Like life itself, computing is often best enjoyed while sitting in a warm lap." For $8.95 both you and your cat will find this an enjoyable read. - Monica Ertel

Rosalind Picard
Affective Computing
Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 1997.
cloth, 292 p., ISBN 0-262-16170-2, $US27.50
MIT Press:

Rosalind Picard explores that dangerous and emotional topic of computing and emotions. The old bromide states fundamentally that humans are emotional, computers are not, and that computers are fortunate for that genetic difference. But why is the non-emotional "nature" of computers so "superior"? Consciously or subconsciously, many of those who work with computers think that digital performance is improved by apishly becoming a modern version of Star Trek's Vulcan pasha, Mr. Spock. Well, attention fans of dear Mr. Spock, on the second page of Affective Computing, the author bluntly states too little emotion can impair decision making [italics belong to Picard]. In this book's first part, Picard explains how an "emotional" computer might be constructed, its benefits, and the problems that this sort of "affective" computing introduces. As Picard points out "Until computers can learn the emotional singificance and similarities of situations, they will be like autistics who are good at memorizing patterns and lists, but not good at understanding emotional significance, or at responding suitably" [pp. 78-79]. The second part of the book examines how emotions might be represented in the digital world (emotive agents, where a whole set of emotional reactions are possible under an "umbrella" (as Picard notes), ranging from fear to hope). The last chapter deals with electronic "clothes" - objects that work as mechanical and electronic extensions of the human senses; a digital disc player adjusts music on the fly in response to the emotional states of its wearer. Affective Computing is a thoughtful and stimulating review of efforts to make computers more human in their ways; this book provides a great deal of insight into human emotions and how they best might be mapped to our digital companions. This book deserves to be read by students of computing and programming (and their instructors!) but also by anyone with the slightest interest in the future. - ejv

Dave Raggett, Jenny Lam, Ian Alexander, and Michael Kmiec
Raggett on HTML 4. Second edition
Reading, Mass.: Addison-Wesley, 1998.
paper, 437 p., ISBN 0-201-17805-2, $US29.95

HTML 4.0 is the latest way to broaden the appeal and use of the World Wide Web, making it easier for almost anyone to provide information and allowing greater diversity in the kinds of information accessible in this medium. Unlike many other guides to HTML, this book is full of humor and good examples on how to advantage of this language. Cartoons throughout the book, featuring Adrian Anorak, Prunella, and other characters, enliven the text. Fourteen pages of color plates help you understand style sheets, color, and other HTML features. There's much practical advice and pointers to useful sites to better understand how to organize information for readers and for those with the task of maintaining a site. For example, in the section on design, the authors praise the Web site for the University of California Museum of Paleontology as an "informative delight" (I agree!) and then describe in detail their reasons. Eighteen chapters and eleven appendices take you everywhere you need to go from an accurate (finally) history of the Web to frames, forms, meta tags to tags that failed to make the HTML 4 cut to the Cyberia Café. Wondering about the LANG attribute? Care to add ballon help? You'll find the answers in this book; anyone working with HTML will need this book within reach. - ejv

Ellen Ullman
Close to the Machine: Technophilia and Its Discontents
San Francisco: City Lights Books, 1997.
paper, 189 p., ISBN 0-872-86332-8, $US12.95

So what is it like to be a computer consultant, a programmer living by wit alone? Ellen Ullman, a programmer and consultant for the past twenty years, gives you one perspective in this marvellous and highly personal book. Ellen hits upon some common themes that every programmer and consultant encounters in their fast-paced lives, the constant balancing acts between personal and public personae. In the course of this book, we learn of Ellen's managerial techniques, her opinions about complex databases, her family, loves, and work ethic. There might be some individual differences between Ellen and other independent programmers/computer engineers, but many of her professional. concerns and attitudes could easily fit many others in her sort of position. What makes this book particularly valuable is the way in which you learn to understand her thinking and her interfaces to the world around her. There really isn't another book quite like this, in the ways in which it explains some of the daily routines of a complex profession. For those who don't quite appreciate the daily work of a programmer and a consultant, Close to the Machine will help you understand this life, one that moves from more than just one contract to another. - ejv

Victor J. Vitanza
Writing for the World Wide Web
Boston: Allyn and Bacon, 1998.
paper, 236 p., ISBN 0-205-26693-2, $US28.00
Peachpit Press:

Designed for students and instructors in the humanities, Writing for the World Wide Web is a basic overview of HTML and the World Wide Web for the technophobic. In ten chapters and with five appendices, Vitanza explains just the right amount of HTML so almost anyone can create a basic document for the Web. A number of illustrations in the text display the results of efforts with text and graphics, but many of the illustrations are sized poorly in the body of the book. HTML in the text is clear and uncomplicated, but the binding is completely uncooperative in keeping the book open to particular passage. These format issues aside, the pace of the book is designed not to frighten away too many students; the author's explanation of hypertext should make sense to even the most dense. For instructors, it might be worthwhile to take some of Vitanza's HTML examples and make them available in electronic form for students (to reduce re-keying errors and plain frustration); this book will find its way into many a classroom, from ""Programming for Poets" to "Digital Rhetoric" and in its way open up the wonders of HTML and the World Wide Web to new audiences.- ejv

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