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Bandits on the Information Superhighway

Daniel Barrett
O'Reilly & Associates, Inc. 229 pp
ISBN 1-56592-156-9

(Reviewed by Mick Farmer)

This is the third book in the "What you need to know" series from O'Reilly. It follows the same format as "When you can't find your System Administrator" and "Using Email Effectively". The majority of the O'Reilly books to date have been focused on a single topic, such as "Building Internet Firewalls", or even a single language, such as "Learning Perl". These books, in my opinion, are first-rate, well-written, and extremely useful reference books for the technical computer user.

The books in the "What you need to know" series are aimed more at the non-technical people who happen to use computers and need to know more about their tools. In order to give this series a distinctive style, the books all contain "sidebars" on every page featuring anecdotes from users or interesting snippets of information. Personally, I find this extremely irritating as I'm never sure when to read the sidebar as I'm reading a page. Another feature of these books is a "Quick Reference" page where the reader can jot down information about the computer system they're using. Stuff like my username, or my computer's name, or the name of my e-mail program. This is really going back to basics and I'm certainly not enthusiastic about this series at all.

Well, that's the whole series out of the way! What about this latest book? By and large, it concentrates on e-mail and network news with occasional forays into privacy (hackers and crackers), parental worries (pornography and paedophiles), and our rights on the net (copyright, harassment, etc.). As the author acknowledges, much of the material concerns well-known scams, dubious sales tactics and advertising, albeit covered from the perspective of the Internet. A pyramid scheme on the Internet is still just a pyramid scheme, except that the information travels much faster and to more people.

One point that the author makes repeatedly, that I do think is important for the new or naïve computer user, is that appearances can be deceiving. Our network personalities can often be different from our face-to-face ones. Using e-mail, netnews, or irc to communicate with someone means that we build up a mental picture of that person without possibly coming into direct contact with them. In fact, some people deliberately create a network persona that is different from their "normal" one. Most of the time, it doesn't matter if we misjudge a person's character over the net. Problems only arise when it comes to questions of trust. Would you purchase something from this person? Would you like to meet this person?

Some of the sidebars are interesting, but I found the often simplistic quotes from people mostly off-putting. I wasn't looking out particularly, but I did notice that this book re-uses a sidebar from Tim O'Reilly that first cropped up in the e-mail book (presumably it doesn't do any harm to mention the boss occasionally :-).

Overall, the book is well-written and the information is presented in the same clear way that we've come to expect from

O'Reilly. However, I can't get worked up over this book. The simplistic approach taken by this book, and the others in this series, just doesn't give me a buzz like some of their other titles ("Exploring Expect" comes particularly to mind). Obviously, O'Reilly needs to find new topics and approaches for its books. In my view this one is not a winner. Perhaps I should have given this book to a non-technical computer user for review!

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