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Book Reviews

Submission + - Book review: Cooking for Geeks

jsuda writes: You've got to have a lot of confidence and nerve to write and try to sell a nearly 400 page book on cooking to the take-out pizza and cola set. No cookbook is likely to turn many geeks into chefs or take them away from their computer screens. However, even though "Cooking for Geeks" contains a large number of recipes, it is not a conventional cookbook but a scientific explanation of the how and why of cooking which will certainly appeal to that group, as well as to cooking professionals and intellectually curious others.



The author is a geek himself and brings “geek-like” approaches to the subject matter – deep intellectual curiosity, affinity for details, appreciation of problem solving and hacking, scientific method, and a love of technology. What is even better is his filtering of cooking concepts by a computer coder’s framework, analogizing recipes to executable code, viewing of ingredients as inputs and as variables, running processes over and over in a logical manner to test and improve outcomes. This is not a mere literary shoe-horning of cooking concepts into a coder’s framework but an ingenuous approach to the topics that should loudly resonate with geeks.



The subject matter includes selecting and using kitchen and cooking hardware; prepping inventory; calibrating equipment (especially your oven, using sugar); understanding tastes and smells; the fundamental difference between cooking and baking (and the personality types which gravitate to one form or the other); the importance of gluten and the three major types of leavening (biological, chemical, and mechanical); the types of cooking; using time and temperatures; how to use air as a tool; the chemistry of food combinations; and very thorough and detailed discussions of food handling and safety. The book is organized into seven chapters and includes an appendix dealing with cooking for people with allergies. The recipes are indexed in the front of the book.

The major conventional flavor types of salt, sugar, acids, and alcohol have been supplemented by modern industrial elements – E- Numbered (a Dewey decimal system-like index) additives, colloids, gels, foams, and other yummy things! All are itemized, charted, and explained in the chapter entitled “Playing with Chemistry.” A whole chapter (and an interview with mathematician, Douglas Baldwin) is devoted to the latest and greatest food preparation technique –sous vide– cooking food in a temperature-controlled water bath.



Threaded through the sections are short sidebar interviews of mostly computer and techie types who are serious cooks or involved in the food industry. Some of these contributors are Adam Savage (of Myth Busters fame) on scientific technique, Tim O’Reilly (CEO of the book’s publisher) on scones and jam, Nathan Myhrvold, on Moderist cuisine, and others. Other interviews deal with taste sensitivities, food mysteries, industrial hardware, pastry chef insights, and many more. There is an insightful section just on knives and how to use and care for them.



Anyone who is interested in cooking will learn from this book. I now pay attention to things I’ve never heard of before: browning methods like caramelization and the Maillard processes, savory as a major taste, transglutaminase (a.k.a. meat glue), for example. There is stuff I didn’t really want to know – “if you’ve eaten fish you’ve eaten worms.”



Although one of the strengths of the book is the systematic organization, there are useful tips spread throughout. For example, keeping a pizza stone permanently in your oven will help even out heat distribution; storing vegetables correctly requires knowing whether they admit ethylene gas or not (a chart is included); you can test your smell sensitivity profile by using a professional scratch and sniff test kit obtainable from the University of Pennsylvania. Whatever specialized information not contained in the book is referenced to external sources, especially on the Internet.



If all of this is not stimulus enough for the geek crowd, how about learning how you can spectacularly kill yourself cooking with dry ice, liquid nitrogen, blowtorches, and especially an electrocuted hotdog. Cool! This is mad scientist stuff. Engineering-minded types can learn how to make their own ice cream machine from Legos. You’ll also learn how NOT to kill your guests with bacteria and other toxins.



The production is nicely done with easily readable text, plentiful drawings and charts, color captions, and many other quality production features. Weights are based in both grams and US volume-based measurements.



(FTC disclosure (16 CFR Part 255): The reviewer has accepted a reviewer's copy of this book which is his to keep. He intends to provide an honest, independent, and fair evaluation of the book in all circumstances.)
Operating Systems

Submission + - Mac OSX Leopard Edition: The Missing Manual

jsuda writes: "The preeminent general reference source for Mac OS 10 has always been the Missing Manual Series written by David Pogue. The latest iteration in the series is its Mac OS 10 Leopard Edition, completely revised, and it is the biggest, most comprehensive, and most useful of all the editions in the series. It covers the OS X desktop and file system, the free applications included with the OS X installation, the system components and technologies, networking and online features and components, and includes welcome appendices on installation, troubleshooting, Windows/Mac comparisons, and a Master Keystroke list.

Every one of the editions has been exceedingly well-designed and written combining serious treatment of subject content with style, wit, and humor, as well as honest evaluation and critique of features of the Mac operating system. All of the OS X Missing Manuals have addressed issues for a broad range of users, from the lightly experienced, the intermediate, and for power users. For the most part, however, the primary focus of each edition has been on the less experienced users. This has changed with the Leopard edition.

There seems to have been a deliberate effort to make the book more appealing and useful to upper-end users without losing any utility at all for others. There seems to be more material for power users- -there are more Power Users Guides providing advanced information and techniques, more UNIX references for those willing and able to take avail of the UNIX kernel underlying the operating system, more identifications of keyboard shortcuts, and more disclosure of undocumented and advanced features than in previous editions.

For example, Pogue itemizes and describes at least 20 UNIX utilities that only power users would want to use, explains how to configure preferences for the Terminal application, explains how to deal with the file and folder permissions system using UNIX commands, and even notes the existence of the venerable Eliza therapist emulator program hidden in a part of the emacs text editor. At each juncture of describing operating system features, Pogue explains from the perspective of different levels of users, including the power user, like himself. Unlike in many other books purporting to cover a broad range of users, this one does not short on the higher-end.

This is all well and good as casual users are still widely well-taken care of by the thorough and well-organized explanations of nearly every feature of OS 10.5. The book is illustrated profusely with screenshots of system features, configuration processes, comparison of the Mac OS X versions, comparisons of Mac OS X to Windows features, and more. Nearly every page is loaded with Tips, Notes, FAQs, lists, tables, and sidebars. Throughout, there are nuggets of insight and technical arcana that even Mac veterans will be surprised to learn about. I learned, for example, that the one-button Apple Mighty Mouse has a secret 2-button feature. Also there is a similar way to operate a laptop with a two finger trackpad technique. There are a lot of tips and tricks like that in the book. Even beyond description and explanation, Pogue provides useful recommendations for configurations of the Dock, recovery from common errors, and using Automator to design practical workflows for common tasks.

The subject content builds upon that of previous editions and updates it with material relating to the 300-plus new features of Leopard. Much of the new material covers the Leopard update highlights the backup program called Time Machine, a desktop switching application called Spaces, the Stacks organizing feature, the file previewer, QuickLook, and the feature enhancements in iChat, Mail, and especially Spotlight, the search tool.

Spotlight is much more than a mere search tool although it is a great one. A whole chapter is devoted to it alone. Pogue explains how to use it not just for casual and advanced searching (using over 125 types of data and metadata) but as a quick launcher of files, folders, and applications; as a calculator; and as a dictionary. Sophisticated query languages can be used and Pogue lists a series of power user keyboard shortcuts for Spotlight use.

I see the book as especially useful for those Windows users of all levels gravitating to the Mac platform. Not only is the treatment of the Mac OS done well, but at nearly every juncture, Pogue takes the perspective of a Windows user and provides practical comparisons and contrasts of operating systems.

Weaving all of these perspectives into a harmonious, readable manual is a fine achievement. The content discussions and explanations are never abstract but written from the viewpoint of the thoughtful and practical user and no one is better at this than David Pogue who has been cited before as one of the worlds best (technical) communicators. The denseness of the treatment of the subject content diminishes somewhat from the readability of the book compared to prior editions and there is a bit less wit, humor and style. That is the trade-off, I presume, for the increased breadth and depth of the content treatment but this Missing Manual is still as well written as a computer manual can be expected to be."
Businesses

Submission + - Founders at Work:Stories of Startup's Early Days

jsuda writes: "There is a great deal of personal and professional drama and fascinating business and technological insights in the stories of thirty-two founders of computer-era technology businesses contained in "Founders at Work: Stories of Startups' Early Days." Author, Jessica Livingston, has interviewed these entrepreneurs and obtained their perspectives on what happens in the first years of a technology-based startup company. Her goal is to obtain a fund of experience that other people can learn from. She tries to get at the human side of technology.
Her method is in asking these entrepreneurs open ended questions about their experiences in their own startups and letting them relate their histories, perspectives, insights, and advice, in their own words.

        The interviewees make up a grand list of some of the people who helped create and develop the computer industry and the Internet. In hardware, the most prominent are Steve Wozniak of Apple Computer fame, Mike Ramsay of TiVo, Mike Lazaridis of Research in Motion. In software, there are Mitchell Kapor of Lotus Development, Blake Ross of Firefox, and Mena Trott of Six Apart. And, in services, Max Levchin of PayPal, Craig Newmark of craigs list, and Steve Perlman of Web TV stand out. There are nearly two dozen other entrepreneurs who inform, enlighten, and sometimes entertain in their interviews with Ms. Livingston. For instance, Tim Brady, the first non-founder employee of Yahoo retells a story of a storm and power outage at the Yahoo office before a meeting of Yahoo principals and venture capital people which was held in candlelight and with water dripping from ceilings. A gas-fueled generator set up hastily to run the servers was being rated by how many webpages it was serving up, per gallon! The money people were not charmed.

        Among the founders, most were young, and often, mere college students, at the time of their startups. Interestingly, there are only three females in the group, which may or may not imply something about gender and technology, business and entrepreneurship. Only Caterina Fake of Flickr, weighs in much on the gender issue in her interview. She believes that a woman needs to be twice as prepared as a man to be credible with both technical and investment people.

        The bulk of the material concerns computer and network technology and applications, and money. Lots of money. And lots of discussions of money especially in relationship to "VC's" (venture capitalists) who enable creative people with ideas to succeed. Author Livingston herself is one of these capitalists, a founding partner of Y Combinator an investor in some of the companies noted in this book.

        Partly because of her business perspective, and probably mostly because of the dominance of finance and economics in nearly all social affairs, most of the material in the book concerns the symbiotic relationship of inspired creative individuals and creative financial people in producing technological development and change, many times furthering creative good for customers and society, but also facilitating crass commercial interests.

        For many of these entrepreneurs, invested money and "gift" money from enlightened parties called "angels" was a necessary element in producing their dreams of making great products or services for the good of people. For others, the "startup" era (from about the late 1970s to the end of the century) was a time of playing a game of "Who can cash out the most"- founding a beginning technology company, associating with rapacious financial people, and making loads of money when the business "went public", as an "initial public offering" (IPO), which often times ultimately left both the innocent and greedy bereft of value. ( For a satirical view of such gamesmanship, check out the vastly underrated movie comedy/documentary, "Dot", produced in 2002.)

        The author takes no positions on the patent and implied moral issues. Her objective is limited to examining the characteristics of the founders of the successful businesses to see if there are common elements in the people, or patterns in the development of the businesses from initial idea to operating concern providing value to consumers and other businesses.

        She determines that there are such elements: intelligent and skilled individuals, perseverance, comfortability with risk, and maybe most significantly, Luck. After reading the stories of nearly three dozen founders about how their ideas became transformed into productive businesses, it becomes readily apparent that such success is premised, in part, on knowledge and skill, vision and/or inspiration, and perseverance. However, necessary, these elements are insufficient in themselves. Almost every one of the interviewees refers to lucky circumstances and events which conditioned their successes. Some were unsure of the worth of their ideas, at least initially. In most cases, carefully thought-out plans went awry. Almost all founders faced rejection by investors, journalists, and established companies.

        Ms. Livingston's interviewing technique results in personalities being revealed, motivations disclosed, and insightful historical facts about the early developments of the computer industry and the Internet related. A lot of the historical material has been expressed previously elsewhere, but the telling of the stories by the individuals directly involved makes for compelling reading. Some people like Steve Perlman of WebTV, Max Levchin of PayPal, and Steve Wozniak are clearly geeks who love working with hardware and software. Others like Evan Williams of Blogger and Arthur Van Hoff of Marimba seem decidedly businesslike and personally ambitious.

          Some of the people seemed like (or are) heroes. Steve Wozniak, for example can be credited in large part for the PC revolution. He's one of the founders whose motivation was in doing top-quality designs to help the world be a better place. Although he became rich, much of his money has been donated to charities. The relationship of Woz and the co-founder of Apple, Steve Jobs, is fascinating, especially in the contrast of motivations and the distribution of financial gains in the early years. (Woz gave his away; Jobs wanted even more.)

        There are other heroes like Mitchell Kapor of Lotus 1-2-3 fame, whose desire to contribute to society what he was capable of was his primary motivation. Like a number of other founders, financial success was valued for the freedom it provided to do positive deeds rather than for material benefits.

        Not surprisingly, some of these founders realized success by simply scaling up and distributing products they had already designed for themselves. Joshua Schacter of del.icio.us fame needed a way to manage his own 20,000 browser bookmarks and came up with a "tagging" feature which eventually resulted in a sharing and collaborative website business.

        craigslist founder, Craig Newmark, expanded upon his practice of e-mailing notices of local cultural events to his friends into a nationwide service for consumer interaction. The business is one of the rare startups which has remained privately held.

        Hotmail was formed by Sabeer Bhatia as an extension of a personal problem-solving adventure in accessing e-mail remotely beyond his company's firewall. Solving that problem for self and coworkers, led to a business which later grossed $400 million when acquired by Microsoft.

        For those looking for tips on how to mimic the successes of these founders, consider these major themes from the book:

        -make only products that people want.
        -be a leader and make great new products that people will learn to like.

        -go with your own intuitions.
        -make sure to listen and take advice from others, especially your startup team and your eventual customers.

        -make a product or build a business that you are passionate about.
        -be smart and have an exit strategy for your business right from the beginning, "an IPO."

        -make friends and contacts in the business and investment communities, especially the venture capital industry.
        -minimize your involvement with the money people as much as possible in favor of the people who make actual products- programmers and engineers.

        -find a hole in the market and fill it.
        -make something no one else has thought of and create new markets.

        Clear enough? You'll have a to figure it out for yourselves!

          Interestingly, there seems to be one thing nearly everyone agrees on-don't trust Microsoft!"

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