General Bibliography for COS 109, Computers in Our World

Wed Aug 27 11:24:28 EDT 2014

WEB SITES: There are a variety of web sites that are particularly apposite for this course. Here are some of the most relevant.

Slashdot, "News for Nerds", is sometimes a good source for technical news stories, many of which are relevant to COS 109. The accompanying reader comments range from insightful (occasionally) through sophomoric (often) to crude and puerile (all too frequently). Hacker News is on average more technical, but the level of commentary is much better than Slashdot.

Legal and political issues from Berkman Center for Internet & Society at Harvard Law School, Electronic Frontier Foundation, Center for Democracy and Technology, and Chilling Effects.

Technology news from Google, The Register, and Ars Technica.

Blogs are a mixed lot, but one of the best is Freedom to Tinker, by Princeton's own Ed Felten and others at the Center for Information Technology Policy; it's up to date, authoritative, and highly relevant to COS 109.

TALKS: Several talks given on campus over the past few years bear directly on this course, including two by Ed Felten: TMI: Information, Identity, and Privacy, the freshman assembly lecture for the class of 2016, and "Rip, Mix, Burn, Sue: Technology, Politics, and the Fight to Control Digital Media," (Oct 12, 2004). Other talks include "The Creative Commons," by Larry Lessig (Stanford law school, Feb 20, 2003), "Barricelli's Universe: Digital Computing in Princeton, 1945-1958," by George Dyson (Oct 5, 2004), and (advertisement:) "D is for Digital", my freshman assembly lecture for the class of 2007 (Sept 7, 2003). These talks, along with many others, are archived here.

BOOKS: These are books that I have found worth reading as background, or for alternate views, or just because they were interesting. No particular order.

How to Lie with Statistics, Darrell Huff, Norton, 1954 (reissued in 1993). A wonderful little book that will immunize you for a lifetime against statistical chicanery and meaningless numerical presentations. Some of its insights show up in one of the labs. If you read nothing else from this course, read this one. A modern attempt to improve on the classic is Damned Lies and Statistics by Joel Best; I like Huff better, but Best has grown on me. He has a second version called More Damned Lies and Statistics and a third called Stat-Spotting. In somewhat the same genre is Proofiness: The Dark Arts of Mathematical Deception by Charles Seife; the name is a takeoff on "truthiness", and gives you a hint of where the author is coming from. His latest book, Virtual Unreality, is a fun look at the many ways in which the Internet has made it harder and harder to tell truth from fiction, from spam to bimbots. I also liked Chances Are... Adventures in Probability, by Michael and Ellen Kaplan (Viking, 2006), an excellent book on probability, statistics, and their role in just about everything. Very well written, very clear, good stories and ilustrations.

Innumeracy: Mathematical Illiteracy and Its Consequences, John Allen Paulos, Vintage, 1990. An important topic, some good examples, ultimately unsatisfying because the author gets too interested in mathematical cuteness, but still well worth skimming. Paulos has written several other books in the same vein.

Guesstimation, Lawrence Weinstein and John Adams, Princeton University Press, 2008. Small but densely packed with good and often fun estimation problems. Maybe I will lift some for the course.

The Future of the Internet--And How to Stop It, Jonathan Zittrain, 2008. The movement of the Internet from a wide open environment that anyone with a good idea can add to, to a closed "appliancized" system controlled by vendors. Zittrain gives a good talk on this as well; look for it on YouTube or a local version. The book itself is available online under a Creative Commons licence.

Blown to Bits: Your Life, Liberty, and Happiness After the Digital Explosion, Hal Abelson, Ken Ledeen, Harry Lewis, 2008. Bits and pieces, so to speak, of this would make good material for COS 109, and it derives from a somewhat analogous course at Harvard. No QR component here, and it's often pretty superficial about technical details, but the book touches on many COS 109 topics covered when we talk about the Internet. Lots of good and difficult issue questions, illustrated with some great anecdotes. (I also really like Harry Lewis's blog Bits and Pieces, which always has excellent comments on technology, society and life at a small liberal arts college by the Charles River in Cambridge.)

Larry Lessig is an important and influential figure in intellectual property law, and his books and blog are well worth reading. Most are available online.

The Victorian Internet: The Remarkable Story of the Telegraph and the Nineteenth Century's On-Line Pioneers, Tom Standage. Walker & Co, 1998, also available in paperback. Fascinating story of the development and spread of a new technology and its effects in society; the parallels with today's Internet are many.

ENIAC: The Triumphs and Tragedies of the World's First Computer, Scott McCartney, Walker & Company, 1999. Compact description of the invention of the first stored program computer (not invented by von Neumann, a case made fairly compellingly by the author). Surprisingly, he omits any mention of the work of Konrad Zuse in Germany. Babbage's work is well covered in The Difference Engine by Doron Swade; it also relates the construction of one of Babbage's machines in 1991.

It's hard to write well on software, especially for a non-technical audience. One good attempt, once you get past its title, is Go to: The Story of the Math Majors, Bridge Players, Engineers, Chess Wizards, Scientists and Iconoclasts who were the Hero Programmers of the Software Revolution, Steve Lohr, Basic Books, 2001. I can personally attest to the author's careful fact-checking.

Secrets and Lies: Digital Security in a Networked World, Bruce Schneier, Wiley, 2000. Security and privacy threats and breaches, quite accessible to the non-specialist. Well worth reading. So is his newer Beyond Fear, which is more about sensible responses to things like terrorism. His blog Schneier on Security is well worth reading.

Security Engineering: A Guide to Building Dependable Distributed Systems, Ross J. Anderson, Wiley, 2008. I prefer this to Schneier. Occasionally more technical, but most parts will be accessible to anyone. The bottom line? Security is exceptionally hard, and many of the problems are people problems (which is also Schneier's conclusion).