Washington Apple Pi

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Summer Reading Program: Mac OS X books

© 2003 Lawrence I. Charters

Washington Apple Pi Journal, reprint information

Ah, summer! Time to go out and mow the yard, clean out the gutters, repave the driveway, dismantle the transmission and put it back together again (just for the heck of it), plant several acres of vegetables for canning, and other fun activities!

Or you can stay indoors and play with your Mac. Since you might as well learn something while you are at it, here are some Mac OS X books you can read, separated into four classifications: Beginning and Novice, Comfortable and Productive, Advanced and Dangerous, and Minor Deity.

Beginning and Novice

Robin Williams, The Robin Williams Mac OS X Book, Jaguar Edition. Peachpit, 2002. 808 pp. $29.99. ISBN 0-321-16966-2.

This is, without doubt, one of the best computer books ever written. Not only does it answer virtually every question a novice might have about Mac OS X, it also goes beyond the operating system to talk about the Mac and basic Mac tasks in general.

It is a gem of technical writing, yet it doesn’t appear in the least bit technical, and it is also an awesome example of outstanding layout (done by Robin herself). The table of contents and index are exceptional in both presentation and accessibility; you can find anything, and quickly. Highly recommended.

David Pogue, Mac OS X, The Missing Manual, 2nd Ed. O’Reilly, 2002. xii, 712pp. $29.95. ISBN 0-596-00450-8.

The first edition of this book was marred with far too much speculation and editorial comment; Pogue at times seemed to be aggrieved that he wasn’t personally consulted when Apple was designing Mac OS X. Either because Mac OS X 10.2 is closer to his tastes, or because people complained, this edition is much better. Still basically a beginner’s guide, it does have some “power user” information sprinkled about, properly highlighted.

David Coursey, Mac OS X For Windows Users: A Switchers’ Guide. Peachpit, 2003. x, 292 pp. $19.99. ISBN 0-321-16889-5.

David Pogue, Switching to the Mac: The Missing Manual. O’Reilly, 2003. xii, 434pp. $24.95. ISBN 0-596-00452-4.

These two books are for a subset of the Macintosh user community: the former Windows users that have been seduced into the world of the Mac. While they take a slightly different narrative approach, both are very well done.

David Lerner and Aaron Freimark, Macintosh Troubleshooting Pocket Guide. O’Reilly, 2003. vi, 72pp. $12.95. ISBN 0-596-00443-5.

Technically, this isn’t a novice book at all, but it isn’t just for power users, either. Essentially, it is a nicely edited mass-market reprint of a booklet produced by Tekserve, a Manhattan Mac-only repair shop. I’d seen their booklets at Macworld New York over the years, and wondered how I could get copies for relatives, friends and coworkers, and now I have an answer: go to a bookstore. An outstanding, small, portable troubleshooting guide to the world of Macintosh, it covers pre-Mac OS X topics as well.

Comfortable and Productive

Maria Langer, Visual QuickPro Guide: Mac OS X 10.2 Advanced. Peachpit, 2003. xxiv, 344pp. $24.99. ISBN 0-321-16893-3.

Maria Langer has been writing excellent Mac (and non-Mac) books for a long time, and this is (ho-hum) yet another excellent book. It assumes, like all other books in this section, that you have a passing familiarity with Mac OS X to begin with, and want to learn about the more advanced functions.

Chuck Toporek, Mac OS X Pocket Guide, 2nd Ed. O’Reilly, 2003. vii, 141 pp. $14.95. ISBN 0-596-00458-3.

You don’t want this book if you aren’t very familiar with Mac OS X; it is very small (as the “Pocket Guide” title suggests), and doesn’t go into depth about anything. On the other hand, if you need a quick reference book, it really will fit in a shirt pocket, or a side pocket in a laptop case.

Scott Kelby, Mac OS X KillerTips. New Riders, 2002. xviii, 267pp. $29.99. ISBN 0-7357-1317-0.

Robert Griffiths, Mac OS X Hints, Jaguar Edition. O’Reilly, 2003. xvi, 461 pp. $24.95. ISBN 0-596-00451-6.

Traditionally I’ve recommended people avoid “Tips” or “Hints” books; users should be reading the basic documentation, not learning about a computer through the idiosyncratic and episodic twists and turns of “tips” and “hints.” But Apple doesn’t ship printed documentation with Mac OS X, and these books are, I hate to admit, quite good. Many if not most of the “tips” and “hints” are actually buried somewhere in the on-line documentation, but your mid-level user may never blunder across this information without a book in hand.

Rael Dornfest and Kevin Hememway, Mac OS X Hacks: 100 Industrial-Strength Tips & Tools. O’Reilly, 2003. xxii, 406 pp., $24.95. ISBN 0-596-00460-5.

Yes, this is another “tip” or “hint” book, but O’Reilly has cleverly managed to make it just different enough to be mentioned separately. Many of the “hacks” are fairly basic, but a few can, if badly done, lead to reformatting your drive and starting over again.

Tara Calishain & Rael Dornfest, Google Hacks: 100 Industrial-Strength Tips & Tools. O’Reilly, 2003. xxii, 329 pp. $24,95. ISBN 0-596-00447-8.

Obviously this is a Google book and not a Mac OS X book, but it definitely is something that a “comfortable and productive” user might enjoy. Fun and sometimes even useful things to do with Google, the world’s most fun and sometimes useful Web search engine.

Jason McIntosh, Chuck Toporek and Chris Stone, Mac OS X in a Nutshell. O’Reilly, 2003. xxii, 801pp. $34.95. ISBN 0-596-00370-6.

At the borderline between a power user and a geek reference, Mac OS X in a Nutshell is a densely written, highly technical reference for people already familiar with Mac OS X. Avoid it like the plague if you are not already intimate with the world of Macs and Mac OS X. But if you are an übergeek -- highly recommended.

Advanced and Dangerous

Sandra Henry-Stocker and Kynn Bartlett, Unix for Mac: Your visual blueprint for maximizing the foundation of Mac OS X. Wiley, 2003. xii, 337 pp. $26.99 (includes CD-ROM). ISBN 0-764503730-X.

This “armed and dangerous” section assumes you want to get under the nice, cheery Mac interface and play directly with the Unix underpinnings of Mac OS X, which is definitely not for most people. But if you’ve graduated from Power User and TCS Geek status and want to go on, this book is a delight: an introductory Unix book that is genuinely visual. How can you possibly have a Unix book – Unix is virtually all text – that is visual? Henry-Stocker and Bartlett have found a way, and it is exquisite. The book comes with a CD-ROM containing an electronic version of the book, which comes in surprisingly handy.

John Ray and William C. Ray, Mac OS X Unleashed, 2nd ed. Sams, xxviii, 1530 pp. $49.99. ISBN 0-672-32465-2.

I call the Sams Unleashed books “shopping bag” books because if you do much more with them than leave them on the shelf to impress friends and coworkers, the spines split, and you end up having to carry the books in a shopping bag. Accordingly, I’ve avoided recommending them, or even using them – but this one is actually good. It tries to cover too much of everything from novice subjects to things only a Unix system administrator could love, and if you are a novice, avoid it; there are better books. But if you lean towards the system administrator end of the spectrum, it is packed with useful information, nicely collected under one cover -- right up to the point where it falls apart.

Dave Taylor and Brian Jepson, Learning Unix for Mac OS X, 2nd Ed. O’Reilly, 2003. xiv, 141 pp. $19.95. ISBN 0-596-00470-2.

Altogether an excellent book on learning Unix the Mac OS way, and even better the second time around. And it is thin enough to fit in a PowerBook carrying case, too.

Matisse Enzer, Visual QuickPro Guide: Unix for Mac OS X. Peachpit, 2003. xviii, 541pp. $24.99. ISBN 0-201-79535-3.

While not as pretty as the first book in this section, this is probably the best book yet on learning Unix on Mac OS X, at least in terms of coverage. It is also the least visual of all the Peachpit “Visual QuickStart/QuickPro” books, with more narrative text than the other books in the series. These are not criticisms, however: it is a hefty book for a hefty subject, yet very approachable.

Minor Deity

Bruce Potter, Preston Norvell and Brian Wotring, Mac OS X Security. New Riders, 2003. xx, 385 pp. $39.99. ISBN 0-7357-1348-0.

John Ray and William C. Ray, Mac OS X Maximum Security. Sams, 2003. xviii, 747 pp. $44.99. ISBN 0-672-32381-8.

Once you’ve reached the point were you know everything there is to know about the Mac, and everything there is to know about Mac OS X, you should read these books. As the names suggest, they are security primers, specifically for the unique brand of Unix hiding under the Mac OS X hood. Widely viewed as the most powerful desktop operating system ever written, Mac OS X is also, at the same time, the most dangerous Mac OS ever written: you can do all kinds of amazing things with Mac OS X, and those amazing things also open your machine up to attack, from people near and afar.

Covering everything from physical security to encrypting E-mail to securing Apache to using ssh for port forwarding to tasks even more exotic, both books are definitely not light reading. For one thing, both almost require that you have a Mac in hand so you can test, poke, prod and configure while you read. In an interesting bit of irony, virtually all the subject matter concerns threats that can come in via networks, yet both books assume you have an active, and preferably high-speed network connection in order to acquire the patches and tools used to protect your Mac from threats coming in from those same networks.

If you don’t think Mac OS X presents security problems, reading just a chapter or two in either book should disabuse you of such foolish ideas. Instilling paranoia, however, isn’t the aim; these books are tools for combating barbarians, and quite good tools at that.

Once you’ve read everything on this list, I highly recommend reading the entire Lord of the Rings trilogy before the final movie is released in December 2003. In its own way, Lord of the Rings is a security course, too, only with good and evil more sharply defined. But the barbarians are just as ugly.