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Spells for Wizards: A Review of Books

© 1999 Lawrence I. Charters

Washington Apple Pi Journal, November/December 1999, pp. 27-29, reprint information

With just over a year left of this millennium, the world seems to be both rushing forward and looking back at the same time. We are rushing forward into an era of pervasive computing, with multiple microcomputers in the home, microprocessors in almost every electrical gadget at home and work, and a steadily declining number of programmers and engineers who can claim to understand what these machines are doing. At the same time, we are looking back, a year too early, at the "past millennium," with a sense of wonder over what we have done, and a sense of dread over some of those same deeds.

A Deepness in the Sky

Vernor Vinge, a professor of mathematics when he isn't writing science fiction, has long been one of the most startling visionaries on the subject of people and computers. Almost twenty years ago he wrote True Names, a novella that so perfectly described the coming on-line, role-playing, virtual reality world that other writers were forced to either imitate the story or come up with fuzzy, muddled alternatives. Nominated for both the Hugo and Nebula awards, it is in theory something of a murder mystery, but is also about AOL, Netscape, Microsoft, and other things that hadn't been invented when the story was written.

Now jump ahead a couple thousand years. Vinge's latest work, A Deepness in the Sky, is another visionary work. On one level, it is about a galaxy-spanning, loosely defined family of traders who bind civilization together through goods, services, gossip and information. It is also a story about a rare "on/off" star that has puzzled scientists for thousands of years with bursts of activity and long periods of cold quiet. Throw in a very unusual race of hyperactive spiders, a clutch of geniuses (human and spider), and some tyrants who radically redefine the idea of micromanagement and you have a heck of a story.

But behind all this, and binding it all together, is the concept of information as an asset. Managing information is at the heart of A Deepness in the Sky, using networks and communications webs, and some truly small microcomputers. Information management is used as a tool for the ultimate evil, as well as for a resplendent good. You'll learn a lot about computers and information theory, with far better plot, setting and character than most such works on the subject. Highly recommended for anyone interested in the future.

Sad Macs, Bombs and Other Disasters

For those impossibly practical souls more interested in the present, Ted Landau's Sad Macs, Bombs and Other Disasters, 3rd ed., is one of those rare books that you may need to buy more than once. At nearly a thousand pages, it is intimidating at first glance, and the character development isn't nearly as impressive as Vinge's work. On the other hand, the sheer genius and scope of the volume becomes more impressive over time; this is a book that you use until it falls apart, and then you get a replacement.

Of what value, you might ask, is a book that predates Mac OS 8? The glib answer is: most of the world predates Mac OS 8. A more relevant answer is: there are millions of Macs out there that are covered by this book and, until an update is released, no other volume offers such a wealth of material on keeping such machines happy and healthy. In glorious detail, Landau covers operating systems, utilities, disk drives, CD-ROMs, video, sound, and virtually every other subject, explaining not only how they work but also how they fail to work, and what to do about the failure.

The genius of the book, aside from the sheer weight of knowledge, is the organization. The detailed Table of Contents fills a dozen pages. An excellent Symptom Index fills sixteen pages, and these pages are printed on gray paper so they are easy to find. Another 28 pages are devoted to the superbly cross-referenced main index, properly located at the back of the volume, with no irritating pages of commercials cluttering it up. One of the best-known Mac Web sites, MacFixit (http://www.macfixit.com) is essentially an electronic extension of the book.

If you, or a friend, or a relative, have an "older Mac" (say, from a Power Mac 7200 clear back to the dawn of the Mac world in 1984), you need to track down a copy of this book. Sooner or later, you'll have a need for information on, say, the mysterious CUDA button, documented here and almost nowhere else. Plus, if you memorize all 18 Fix-It chapters in the book (each chapter is only a few pages), you'll be fully qualified as a Mac guru.

The Macintosh Bible

Not quite as impressive is Sharon Zardetto Aker's The Macintosh Bible, 7th edition. With over a million copies in print, the various editions of The Macintosh Bible are, obviously, huge sellers, as well as being, well, huge. While they contain some troubleshooting information, it is far less extensive than Landau's book. Instead, the emphasis is on descriptive material.

Technically speaking, it is really an encyclopedia of "things Macintosh," explaining how to do everyday tasks ranging from formatting a floppy (obviously not for recent machines) to arranging icons on your desktop. The breadth of information is impressive, though at times the depth is somewhat shallow.

If this praise seems a bit faint, keep in mind that this is an excellent book. The reservations are mostly philosophical: do users really need massive, all-encompassing books that cover all aspects of a computer to some degree? Or are they better served by more focused volumes? Sales figures indicate that The Macintosh Bible and similar works, such as the massive Macworld Mac Secrets books by IDG Books, are huge commercial successes. But, without the concentrated focus of more specialized works, few people seem to use these books once they leave the bookstore.

HTML Master Reference

One book that aims for heavy use is Heather Williamson's HTML Master Reference, a massive volume (over 1300 pages) issued in hardcover. The move to hardcover is probably a good idea; IDG books have a reputation as "bag books" because, due to flimsy spines, the paperback versions often need to be stored in a paper sack after moderate use.

As the title suggests, the book aims to be the comprehensive reference on HyperText Markup Language. This is a goal not without controversy; HTML was originally intended to open up the Internet to non-specialists, and was supposed to be vendor neutral, equally at home with every hardware and software product.

In practice, Netscape and Microsoft, the two leading commercial vendors of HTML tools, have created different "dialects" of HTML, and neither dialect follows the published standards. To take but one example, Netscape Communicator 4.7 has only modest support for Cascading Style Sheets (CSS), which are supposed to be part of HTML 4.0. Microsoft has fairly extensive support for Cascading Style Sheets in Internet Explorer 4.5 and later &endash; but Microsoft's dialect doesn't even try to follow the HTML 4.0 specification. Instead of working towards a true World Wide Web, Microsoft, at least, appears to be trying to carve out a gigantic private, proprietary network.

Unfortunately, these sectarian wars are given insufficient attention in Williamson's book. Endless pages are spent describing, in alphabetical order, every single tag and tag element. Rarely, however, does she mentions how the two main camps differ in how they interpret, or fail to interpret, various tags and tag elements.

When she does note such differences, they are at the end of an entry, as are cross-reference notes. While special icons are used to denote cross-reference entries, JavaScript entries, important notes and tips, it is still frustrating to plow through several pages covering a complex tag, only to discover that Internet Explorer, or Netscape, or both, don't pay any attention to the standard syntax.

Another major irritant is the index. Or, rather, the lack of an index. The CIP (Cataloging In Publication) entry on the verso of the title page states the book "Includes index." IDG's own promotional material indicates it has an index. But there is no index of any sort. And no, arranging the entries in alphabetical order is not a substitute.

What you will find at the back of the book (instead of, ahem, an index) are several pages describing Internet Explorer color names and values (with no mention of the fact that they are not, strictly speaking, standard HTML). Yet another 56 pages are devoted to describing unicode character codes (with no mention of the fact that almost nothing supports displaying the listed characters). Padding the book with such tables is probably easier than providing an index, but not nearly as useful. Stuck to the back cover of the book is a CD-ROM with working and trial copies of various Windows and Mac HTML tools, most of which you can obtain from other sources for free.

This had the potential of being a valuable reference, but it fails in many, very annoying little ways. For example, the Contents page is a masterpiece of uselessness: it states that "HTML Master Reference" begins on page 1. The next entry is listed as simply "Appendix A," on page 1263, with nary a hint of what this might contain or what might occupy the 1261 intervening pages, followed by the equally anonymous and obscure Appendices B through F. What was the point?

Apache Server Administrator's Handbook

So far, we've looked at 4,000 pages of material, ranging from science fiction to HTML references, and all arguably aimed at general readers. Our last entry, Apache Server Administrator's Handbook, by Mohammed J. Kabir, is directed toward a more specialized audience. Apache, arguably the most popular Web server in the world, normally runs on UNIX, Linux and (occasionally) Windows NT, so why would Macintosh readers even care about administering an Apache server?

Mac OS X Server is the answer. This awkwardly-named software release, which Apple aims at software developers and systems administrators, is a complete UNIX environment, designed to run on desktop Power Macintosh G3 computers. Included in Mac OS X Server is, among many other things, a copy of Apache. Also included is the full set of Apache documentation in the form of hundreds of Web pages, written in the typically terse, cryptic style for which UNIX is infamous.

Kabir assumes, reasonably so, that you already know how to operate the host operating system, be that Windows NT, Linux or UNIX (or, unmentioned, Mac OS X Server), so he ignores that subject entirely. Instead, he details exactly how to install and configure Apache, how to use the many server side includes (SSI) bundled with Apache, and delves into common, uncommon and suggested administrative tasks.

There are quite a number of books on Apache (including the frightening Apache for Dummies), but Kabir's volume is unique: it is actually useful. It doesn't try to cover every little piece of trivia, nor does it brush over the hard parts in favor of the highlights. Instead, as the title suggests, it is a handbook for an Apache administrator, a resource designed for frequent reference.

The organization is excellent, and the volume has a good index and table of contents. True, the table of contents lists the appendices in a less than useful manner ("Appendix A," "Appendix B," etc.), but this is an exception. Who knows, maybe it is an IDG policy…

As Arthur C. Clarke (among others) has noted, the difference between magic and technology is mostly one of knowledge. For those who treasure the sense of wonder that magic offers, be sure and read Vinge's book. For those who want to cast their own spells and inspire others to wonder, read Vinge's book &endash; as well as the others.

The world needs all the wizards it can get.

Vernor Vinge, A Deepness in the Sky, TOR, 1999, 606 pp., $27.95, ISBN 0-312-85683-0

Ted Landau, Sad Macs, Bombs and Other Disasters, 3rd ed., Peachpit Press, 1997, xxviii, 964 pp., $29.95, ISBN 0-201-68810-7

Sharon Zardetto Aker, The Macintosh Bible, 7th ed., Peachpit Press, 1998, xiv, 1024 pp., $34.99, ISBN 0-201-87483-0

Heather Williamson, HTML Master Reference, IDG Books, 1999, 1362 pp., $59.99 (includes CD-ROM), ISDN 0-7645-3256-1

Mohammed J. Kabir, Apache Server Administrator's Handbook, IDG Books, 1999, xxviii, 547 pp., $29.99, ISBN 0-7645-3306-1

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Revised November 24, 1999 Lawrence I. Charters
Washington Apple Pi
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