Tuesday, January 09, 2007

Book review: Loose Wire

Here's the ideal stocking stuffer. Oops, I'm two weeks late with this review. Well, perhaps it's the ideal present for the Chinese New Year on February 18.

Jeremy Wagstaff (who writes about technology for the Wall Street Journal) was kind enough to send me a copy of his new book Loose Wire. It's a collection of his columns from starting in 2000 (yes, 7 years ago) and is subtitled 'a personal guide to making technology work for you'. I give this book high praise by saying that you should buy a copy for any friend who loves technology and stick it in their toilet. More on that later.

First a disclaimer: my name appears in the index of the book and he mentions POPFile a couple of times (even recommending it) and Jeremy and I have discussed various machine learning related things over the last few years.

When I first received the book I was wondering how he was going to pull off turning 7 years of columns into something worth reading today. After all, technology moves very quickly and thinking back to 2000 you'd begin to wonder if anything said back then is worth repeating. But it is, and Jeremy has neatedly woven together his columns by grouping them into subjects. Some of the subjects are pretty general (e.g. Traveling or Contacts), others are very techie (e.g. RSS). He's also bound the columns together with his own humour: he frequently points out what he got wrong in previous columns and makes jokes about his friends' ability with technology.

The overall effect is that the book is readable as a collection of totally separate chapters. And it's readable in no particular order. It's quite possible to sit down with the book, pick a subject that you think is interesting and read Jeremy's summary of the technology and his own trials and tribulations making it work. His advice is good and he covers a broad enough range of subjects to please most people.

Jeremy includes his own (amusing) glossary of terms (that he's invented) such as 'wantage (n): the shortfall between your present computer's capacity and that required to run the program you just bought' and 'devizes (n): gadgets you bought, used once and then, realizing they took up more time that they saved, threw in a drawer'. To that I'd like to add: 'wagstaff (v): to poke any new technology with a long stick, make sure it does what it says on the box, and summarize the experience in less than 2,000 words'.

This book isn't for the hardcore techie. At times, I found myself saying 'I know that!' while reading the book (although, I'll admit to the odd, 'I've never heard of that, must check it out' moment). This book is for the technophile. If you (or a friend) are the sort of person who's really interested in technology, but not a programmer, then Jeremy's explanations are just your cup of tea.

I said this book should be in the toilet. In fact, I think it's such a good book for reading in small doses in a small, quiet room, that a global band of Gideons-like technology evangelists should be leaving copies in the smallest room in the house of any technophile.

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