Posted by Jason Polak on 01. March 2018 · Write a comment · Categories: book · Tags: ,

Today, public-key cryptography is everywhere, offering some measure of security for virtually all internet commerce transactions and secure shell connections. It's hard to imagine life without it, even though most people aren't aware of it.

Steven Levy's Crypto is a great book to explain it and how it all came about. In fact, I first read it almost twenty years ago when I was in high school, and just read it again the other day.

How did encryption in the digital age start out? How did public-key cryptography get invented? And how did public-key crypto get into the hands of pretty much everyone with a web browser all over the world despite the attempts of the U.S. government to control it? These questions are answered in Levy's book.
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Posted by Jason Polak on 14. February 2018 · Write a comment · Categories: book · Tags:

I first heard of Edward Snowden when I was still a PhD student. He became world-famous for leaking huge numbers of NSA documents on their extensive surveillance and data collection program.

(N.B. To be clear, I do not condone what Snowden did, but even so this book makes for interesting reading.)

How this leak happened, and what the leak contained, is detailed in No Place to Hide by Glenn Greenwald. As Snowden entrusted Greenwald with the leaked documents, Greenwald is in a unique position to offer a detailed and accurate account of Snowden's leaked files.

The bulk of Snowden's documents describe the huge amounts of data are collected from pretty much anyone the NSA can get their hands on, regardless of who they are or where they live in the world. This data comes from various sources: intercepted internet transmissions, agreements with phone companies like AT&T, agreements with tech companies like Google, Facebook, and Microsoft, and other spy agencies. The data collected include the exact times and durations of phone calls, and the contents and metadata of emails. The data accumulated by the NSA is so huge that they have to build massive petabyte data centers to store it.

Greenwald's book is frightening, as he describes his first interactions with Snowden.

Many people, including journalists, denounced Greenwald and his associates for the leaks. A journalist for the New York Times lied in an article, and that was just one of many fabrications Greenwald endured to bring the leaked documents to the world. Greenwald and Snowden also had great support as well. As I said, all of this is frightening. Data-driven technology has only begun to mature and in the future we will see something that we've never seen before.

Greenwald wrote a very interesting book here, reporting on the Snowden leaks. Highly recommended.

By the way, if you're interested in this book, read Bruce Schneier's Data and Goliath. Schneier, an expert in computer security, worked with Greenwald on the Snowden files. Data and Goliath is more focused and detailed on the technical aspects of data collection and espionage, whereas Greenwald's book is more about the initial leak.

Posted by Jason Polak on 09. February 2018 · Write a comment · Categories: book · Tags: ,

Steve Jobs will forever be known as prime force behind Apple. 'Steve Jobs' by Walter Isaacson is his definitive biography, requested and authorised by Jobs himself.

Having read quite a few biographies, Isaacson's biography stands out as excellent. Isaacson is a good storyteller, and combined with Jobs' energetic and polarized personality, this book was never difficult to read despite its length.

Perhaps the most fascinating part of this book his how Jobs ruled Apple's product development. Despite not being either technical or a programmer, he had an amazing sense of product usability and aesthetic, and he applied this with an amazing relentless energy to many fine details over the years of product development at Apple. His management style of yelling at people, which seems so common in tech development in various guises, is not something I would want to work under but is nonetheless fascinating to observe from a distance.

I believe the beauty of this biography is that Isaacson manages to create a perfect balance between the personal and the technological. There is great detail on Jobs as a person, which is to be expected. But what makes this biography stand out is that it describes his influence on technology with sufficient detail so that the book doesn't become just a list of biographical facts. For instance, I really enjoyed the descriptions of how Jobs was involved with the evolution of a product from a design and usability perspective.

Isaacson also manages to give just the right amount of detail of the supporting characters so that we see Jobs' life in its social entirety, without too much character introduction or diversions. Highly recommended.

Posted by Jason Polak on 21. January 2018 · Write a comment · Categories: book · Tags: ,

Blockchain is the combination of distributed computing and cryptography that underlies Bitcoin, and it is a fascinating technology that essentially allows users in a network to have usable digital currency. But cryptocurrency is not the only use of blockchain technology: it is also verifiable reputation, contracts, and information in a decentralised manner that hints at some pretty neat applications, all of which have the same underlying theme: making trade much more efficient. This is the topic of Blockchain: Blueprint for a New Economy by Melanie Swan.

The meat of this book are discussions on the uses of blockchain technology from existing ones like decentralised domain name services to possible future ones like decentralised government and secure health data verification. It turns out that there are many situations that would benefit from decentralisation and that also require verifiability. Digital currency, which has (a) decentralisation to avoid middle men like banks, and (b) verifiability so that one cannot just make up how much money is in a digital wallet, is by far not the only one.
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Posted by Jason Polak on 21. January 2018 · Write a comment · Categories: book · Tags: ,

Showstopper! by G. Pascal Zachary chronicles the development of the Windows NT operating system released in 1993.

Showstopper! shows what a monumental project the NT kernel was. Lead by Dave Cutler, the Windows NT project was the first Microsoft operating system to use the NTFS filesystem and fully take advantage of 32-bit memory.

The main focus of the book is the personal effort of so many of the team members involved. Zachary himself went through a huge effort interviewing over a hundred people directly involved with the project and it shines through this book, giving a detailed view of the inner workings of the NT team.

The title of this book is apt and refers to the type of bug introduced in software that is so devastating that it pretty much causes it to be unusable in a typical use case. The project had so many of these bugs and lesser bugs as well numbering into the tens of thousands that it is fascinating to read the superhuman effort that went into fixing them, as well as introducing a bunch of new features as well.

I found this book particularly fascinating because I grew up using DOS, Windows 3.1, and later versions up until XP, after which I switched to Linux. My only wish is that it was a bit more technical in places. For example, there is a rather funny description of how an operating system works via an analogy to a wealthy family living in a house with a bunch of servants. Also, the author uses the word "personality" for the userspace of an OS that to me seemed rather confusing, and I think the book would have been clearer had it just used the appropriate precise terminology. At certain times when bugs or features were described, I would have liked to have a bit more of a technical description of those problems and their solutions, and perhaps less biographical details of some of the characters. Aside from these minor details, I thoroughly enjoyed reading the book.

I heartily recommend this book for anyone interested in software development or computers.