Monday, 10 December 2012

Computing for Ordinary Mortals by Robert St. Amant

Lowdown: Computer science gets the popular science treatment.
Review:
Living in the 21st century, those reading this post will not only be doing so through a computer but will also be wearing some on them. Computers are becoming an integral part of us. However, can we claim to know how these computers of ours work? Computing for Ordinary Mortals sets out to solve this problem of relying so much on things we are generally unfamiliar with by explaining computer science to the masses.
One by one, the book’s chapters introduce its reader to key computing concepts. We start with a basic portrayal of computers’ components, and move on to discuss the workings of a CPU, the network, the computer program, algorithms and even artificial intelligence. In order to explain the potentially complex concepts at hand to the layman, St. Amant uses mundane stories about ordinary human activities (e.g., filing) and then makes the analogy between that and the way computers work. Those analogies work, most of the time, even if they do feel occasionally overstretched.
Does the book work? Does it manage to popularize computer science? I would say it does, definitely so. Even for this computer professional, sorting the story of computers into an ascending tier of subjects helps in the sense that it takes things that I take for granted and puts them into perspective.
At the end of the day, Computing for Ordinary Mortals’ main problem seems to be its lack of flash. It does its explanations well and it is certainly comprehensible; it just lacks the ability to grip and thrill its reader. I have to admit such a task is hard to achieve in popular science books; however, there are plenty of examples to prove it is definitely possible (refer to the likes of Richard Dawkins or Carl Sagan for examples). Perhaps the only way this book managed to keep hold of me is by reminding me of my earlier escapades with computers: my primary school days of machine language programming, or the war game I wrote for my high school project. Incorporating artificial intelligence, that game took ideas from Dungeons & Dragons mass combat rules to create a single player turn based strategy game. I called it The War Machine, after the D&D set of rules it was based on. Yeah, those were the days when I was allowed to achieve nice things!
Overall: A popular science book on a popular subject that’s useful but, ultimately, not dazzling. Computing for Ordinary Mortals is found somewhere between 3 to 3.5 stars out of 5.

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