Book Review: How Software Works

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Book Review: How Software Works

Book Review: How Software Works

Can you explain to a non-technical reader how software works? It depends on what you mean by “software” and “explain.”

With respect to software, this particular book focuses on a few areas that are hot today, and not computing in general. Take a look at the following list. What would it be like to not have the following technologies?

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  • Graphic display, both for pictures and video
  • Security — whether in the form of passwords, encryption, including public key cryptography
  • Data compression techniques to reduce the amount of data sent, whether for text, pictures, or video
  • Web Search
  • Maps that help us find the most efficient driving route
  • Concurrency — allowing multiple parties to use the same application at the same time

The web and the internet generally would be a dramatically different place, and much smaller, as it was in 1990 slightly after Tim Berners-Lee created HTTP (Hypertext Transfer Protocol).

The topics here are important and affect our daily lives. The author of “How Software Works” makes a significant effort to explain programming in a way that teenagers and adults could understand, using pictures, tables, flowcharts, simplified numerical examples, and more.

Now, reading this book will give you a top-level view of how these technologies work, but not much more. It will help you understand some of the tradeoffs that go on in computing. How do you balance:

  • Richness of data delivered versus resource use and speed of display.
  • Security versus ease of use
  • Reduction of size of data versus loss of fidelity in an image or video
  • And more, there are a lot of tradeoffs in programming.

The ideal audience for this book is bright adults who aren’t programmers, but want some appreciation of the hidden complexity behind much of what goes on on the internet. The second ideal audience would be teenagers and young adults who might want a career in computer science, who might benefit from exposure to these varied areas of software. Who knows? One area might catch their fancy, and then they can study it for real, and put it into practice. (I’m giving this book to my second daughter who is interested in programming.)

How Software Works Quibbles

On page 39, the author suggests that there is no way to do square roots, that it is just a guesswork procedure. There are algorithms to do square roots — whether those are used in computing, I don’t know, but it wouldn’t be hard to implement. I was doing it when I was 10. (I’m not much of a programmer presently, but I am good at math.)

How Software Works Summary / Who Would Benefit from this Book

I liked this book. Give it to friends who want to learn about how much of the web is designed. Give it to interested teenagers to expand their horizons in computing. If you want to buy it, you can buy it here: How Software Works.

How Software Works Full disclosure : I received a copy from a friendly PR flack.

If you enter Amazon through my site, and you buy anything, I get a small commission. This is my main source of blog revenue. I prefer this to a “tip jar” because I want you to get something you want, rather than merely giving me a tip. Book reviews take time, particularly with the reading, which most book reviewers don’t do in full, and I typically do. (When I don’t, I mention that I scanned the book. Also, I never use the data that the PR flacks send out.)

Most people buying at Amazon do not enter via a referring website. Thus Amazon builds an extra 1-3% into the prices to all buyers to compensate for the commissions given to the minority that come through referring sites. Whether you buy at Amazon directly or enter via my site, your prices don’t change.

David J. Merkel, CFA, FSA — 2010-present, I am working on setting up my own equity asset management shop, tentatively called Aleph Investments. It is possible that I might do a joint venture with someone else if we can do more together than separately. From 2008-2010, I was the Chief Economist and Director of Research of Finacorp Securities. I did a many things for Finacorp, mainly research and analysis on a wide variety of fixed income and equity securities, and trading strategies. Until 2007, I was a senior investment analyst at Hovde Capital, responsible for analysis and valuation of investment opportunities for the FIP funds, particularly of companies in the insurance industry. I also managed the internal profit sharing and charitable endowment monies of the firm. From 2003-2007, I was a leading commentator at the investment website RealMoney.com. Back in 2003, after several years of correspondence, James Cramer invited me to write for the site, and I wrote for RealMoney on equity and bond portfolio management, macroeconomics, derivatives, quantitative strategies, insurance issues, corporate governance, etc. My specialty is looking at the interlinkages in the markets in order to understand individual markets better. I no longer contribute to RealMoney; I scaled it back because my work duties have gotten larger, and I began this blog to develop a distinct voice with a wider distribution. After three-plus year of operation, I believe I have achieved that. Prior to joining Hovde in 2003, I managed corporate bonds for Dwight Asset Management. In 1998, I joined the Mount Washington Investment Group as the Mortgage Bond and Asset Liability manager after working with Provident Mutual, AIG and Pacific Standard Life. My background as a life actuary has given me a different perspective on investing. How do you earn money without taking undue risk? How do you convey ideas about investing while showing a proper level of uncertainty on the likelihood of success? How do the various markets fit together, telling us us a broader story than any single piece? These are the themes that I will deal with in this blog. I hold bachelor’s and master’s degrees from Johns Hopkins University. In my spare time, I take care of our eight children with my wonderful wife Ruth.
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