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Francis Spufford, Backroom Boys: the secret return of the British Boffin, Faber and Faber

If Dr. Johnson's statement that patriotism was the last refuge of a scoundrel is taken at face value then this book will only be read by British scoundrels. But it will be read far more widely than that because it is a series of good yarns that are well told.

Francis Spufford looks at a number of instances where British scientists and tinkerers happily get on with the job even though the odds and the backing are not very good at all. The instances include early rocket flight, Concorde, the groundbreaking computer game Elite, GSM mobile networks, the great DNA patent grab, and a Mars probe.

Those interested in games, and especially if they ever played Elite, will find that section a pure delight. Two young guys just starting University at Cambridge came up with this groundbreaking game and Spufford takes us through the process in satisfying detail. An aside is that Mstation talked to Ian Bell, one of the developers, in a short interview a couple of years ago.

Another chapter deals with the human DNA sequencing program and the American Craig Venter's attempt to patent the human DNA information. The fact that he couldn't is largely down to the Wellcome Trust and the work done in England in gene sequencing. If you're a full-on, dogma-ridden capitalist, who thinks public goods are irrelevant (trickle down!) and externalities are something made up by pinko scientists and economists, then you'll hate this chapter. Frankly, who cares.

Dr. H.H. Thompson, Spyros Nomikos, The Mezonic Agenda: Hacking the Presidency, Syngress

This is good educational fun. Everyone, everywhere, should be aware of how voting systems work and of the possibilities of some of the new electronic systems. Recent news about the Diebold company made that company look criminally arrogant and incompetent, and easily capable of electoral fraud.

Anyway, this book is a race-along tale with murderous bad guys and a likeable good guy trying to save the world. Whether or not he was somewhat befuddled and naive in the end is something you can judge.

The good guy has a great deal of decrypting and reverse engineering to do on the way through and there is a CD with the book to enable you to hack along with the protagonist. There are also lengthy appendices dealing in a factual way with the technical issues.

We also have a sample chapter for you to read, here.

Brian Overland, C++ Without Fear, Prentice Hall

This is quite a nice entry to C++ and the balance between information and enlivening the information is just about right. There must be thousands of C++ texts out there and too many of them are only read because people absolutely have to in order to pass a course. On the other hand some are so lightweight that they might be readable but aren't much practical use.

The technique used here is to start you coding pretty much straight away with explanations about what's going on, and with asides to compiler issues and the like. We start with simple functions and then go on to classes and along the way deal with io and that sort of thing.

I have some reservations about leaving the OO stuff until later on as just about everyone does, but it is a valid approach and I guess it's easier than starting with inheritance and the like. I just wonder how many people don't actually get there and end up using C++, without its power, in a C-like way.

Now, just to show I've been paying attention, if you buy the book, have a look at the algorithm for discovering whether a number is a prime or not. Hmmm, you say. Now test it with a ridiculous number -- and really there's only one (heh, heh) number that could say that about. What's the result? Another line of code is needed there to make it idiot proof.

The book also comes with a CD which has a GNU C compiler on it so you don't need to buy one if you're using Windows or DOS.

M station has a chapter from the book (on pointers) here.

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