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 surveillance and data collection program, whose primary aim is to indiscriminately collect as much private data from as many people as they can, regardless of whether they were suspected in any wrongdoing.

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. It describes NSA’s indiscriminate and often illegal data collection that pretty much does nothing to keep anyone safe and costs billions of dollars. That the U.S. Government and its partner countries have convinced enough people that this type of spying is worth it is the most bewildering aspect of all, considering that the probability of being killed in a terrorist act is so miniscule.

I also found it alarming that so many people, including journalists, denounced Greenwald and his associates for the leaks. A journalist for the New York Times went so far as to lie in an article, and that was just one of many fabrications Greenwald endured to bring the leaked documents to the world. Of course, Greenwald and Snowden also had great support as well. And lest anyone think that the leaked documents compromised national security, they should actually read this book in which it clearly shows that Snowden carefully selected his documents so that they did not reveal sensitive information that could compromise any security whatsoever.

Greenwald has done a major service to humanity in writing this book and his articles, and reporting on the Snowden leaks. Even so, I think the battle has only begun for basic human rights and existence in the face of massive data analytics in the hands of the power-hungry. Data-driven technology has only begun to mature and in the future we will see something that we’ve never seen before: a future where our lives are manipulated so quickly that most of us will be in danger of losing balance and losing control of some of the best things that make human life liveable. With the onslaught of data analytics and machine learning techniques, I fear that proponents of indiscriminate spying will only redouble their efforts to make the lives of the rest of us worse in their quest for their own power and money.

Everyone should read this book. Highly recommended.

By the way, if you’re interested in this book (and you should be), 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 indiscriminate data collection and espionage, whereas Greenwald’s book is more about the initial event and the effort it took to actually get this crucial information to the public.

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.