(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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