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Best Books of 2014 for Lay Techies

An intensive, potent profile of contemporary digital activism at its most unsettling—and most effective.

HACKER, HOAXER, WHISTLEBLOWER, SPY

THE MANY FACES OF ANONYMOUS

A fresh perspective on the covert, crusading Internet activist group Anonymous.

Coleman (Scientific and Technological Literacy/McGill Univ.; Coding Freedom: The Ethics and Aesthetics of Hacking, 2012), a cultural anthropologist and Internet authority, spent several increasingly immersive years researching the calculated tactics of the global Anonymous collective. She tracks the hacktivist association’s anarchic history from its nascent disruptive publicity stunts and trolled online raids through the “4chan” public chat boards in 2003, executed in the spirit of “lulz” (public schadenfreude). Though the group’s later, more pointed, collaborative machinations would attract the aggressive attention of the FBI, writes Coleman, their activities were still partly implemented in the same roguish, mischievous spirit. Though her treatment is permeated with buzzwords, initialisms and computer jargon, even Internet neophytes will find Coleman’s text to be a consistently fascinating ethnography, as she folds the politics of hacking and website breaching techniques into intriguing stories from the stealth campaigns of microcosmic networks like AnonOps and LulzSec (“a crew of renegade hackers who broke away from Anonymous and double as traveling minstrels”), among others. The author examines the ways the Anonymous collective seeks justice (or, at the very least, a mean-spirited chuckle) through the seizure and release of digitized, classified information or by challenging corporate conglomerates, as demonstrated by the Wikileaks–Chelsea Manning scandal and an early, synchronized attack on Scientology, both of which Coleman generously references. The author is particularly enthusiastic about Anonymous’ interior motivations and provides pages of interviews with infamous, incendiary trollers, snitches and hackers, verbatim bickering chat-room dialogue, and leaked documents. For such a frenzied collective defying easy categorization, Coleman’s diligent and often sensationalistic spadework does great justice in representing the plight of these “misfits of activism” and their vigilante mischief.

An intensive, potent profile of contemporary digital activism at its most unsettling—and most effective.

Pub Date: Nov. 4, 2014

ISBN: 978-1781685839

Page Count: 450

Publisher: Verso

Review Posted Online: Oct. 8, 2014

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Oct. 15, 2014

Goldstein’s bright, ingenious philosophical romp makes Plato not only relevant to our times, but palpably alive.

PLATO AT THE GOOGLEPLEX

WHY PHILOSOPHY WON'T GO AWAY

Plato returns to 21st-century America in this witty, inventive, genre-bending work by MacArthur Fellow Goldstein (36 Arguments for the Existence of God: A Work of Fiction, 2010, etc.).

As the author imagines him, Plato is an intense, curious visitor from ancient Greece who is touring the country to promote his famous tract, The Republic. He lands first in Mountain View, Calif., where he is scheduled to speak to the staff of Google but gets waylaid by an employee who engages him in a conversation about truth, beauty, goodness and justice. That encounter inspires his interest in computers and the intellectual potential of Googling. He comes to love his Google Chromebook, but he cautions Google enthusiasts that information is not the same as knowledge. So what is knowledge? Why is philosophy relevant in contemporary life? What does it mean to live a good life? Those questions and more inform his conversations. Plato joins a panel at the 92nd Street Y to discuss child-rearing, countering the positions of a dour Freudian psychoanalyst and a self-proclaimed Tiger Mom. He takes a gig as a consultant to an advice columnist, offering responses to queries about love and sex; he has a stint on a cable news talk show with an interviewer (think Bill O’Reilly) who questions the whole enterprise of philosophy; and he submits to having his brain scanned in an MRI, even though he’s skeptical about what neurological maps can reveal about the essence of self. Throughout, he never loses his cool, bemused demeanor. Goldstein’s philosophical background serves her impressively in this reconsideration of Plato’s work, and her talent as a fiction writer animates her lively cast of characters: the arrogant, leering scientist in charge of a neurological research lab; the psycho-babbling advice columnist; the egotistical cable news interviewer.

Goldstein’s bright, ingenious philosophical romp makes Plato not only relevant to our times, but palpably alive.

Pub Date: March 4, 2014

ISBN: 978-0-307-37819-4

Page Count: 464

Publisher: Pantheon

Review Posted Online: Dec. 8, 2013

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Dec. 15, 2013

Comprehensive research underlies this compelling, highly emotional and profoundly important story.

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A DEADLY WANDERING

A TALE OF TRAGEDY AND REDEMPTION IN THE AGE OF ATTENTION

A novelist and Pulitzer Prize–winning New York Times reporter explores with nearly Javert-ian persistence one of the early cases of traffic fatalities caused by texting while driving.

On Sept. 22, 2006, college student Reggie Shaw, texting in his truck, veered into the oncoming lane on a narrow highway near Logan, Utah, and struck a car, knocking it into an approaching truck. Both men inside that car were rocket scientists with families, and both died. Richtel (Devil’s Plaything, 2011, etc.) begins his account with an MRI of Shaw’s brain (he returns to this scene near the end), then reports the crash in detail, following the story to its most recent legal and emotional conclusions (insofar as there can be conclusions). He alternates his focus throughout: from Shaw and his family, to the victims’ families, to the police and legal system, to the legislators considering texting laws, to the latest scientific research on how much we can possibly attend to in our incredibly distracting world (not nearly as much as we think). Readers will be alarmed to discover what science has learned about the dangers drivers create when they text or talk on the phone. The vast majority of us are just not capable of doing so safely. Richtel excels at bringing to life his cast of sundry characters. (Virtually everyone agreed to interviews.) Readers get to know Shaw’s parents, the widows, the daughters of the victims, the attorneys on both sides, a judge who keeps Les Misérables near at hand (and required Shaw to read it), a victims rights advocate, scientists and, of course, Shaw himself, who emerges as a modest young man (a devout Mormon), a young man who’d never before been in trouble, a young man who, we eventually realize, could be any one of us.

Comprehensive research underlies this compelling, highly emotional and profoundly important story.

Pub Date: Sept. 23, 2014

ISBN: 978-0-06-228406-8

Page Count: 320

Publisher: Morrow/HarperCollins

Review Posted Online: July 1, 2014

Kirkus Reviews Issue: July 15, 2014

If you’ve ever had the feeling that the system is out for itself at your expense, well, look no further. A riveting,...

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FLASH BOYS

A WALL STREET REVOLT

In trademark Lewis (Boomerang: Travels in the New Third World, 2011, etc.) fashion, a data-rich but all-too-human tale of “heuristic data bullshit and other mumbo jumbo” in the service of gaming the financial system, courtesy of—yes, Goldman Sachs and company.

That stuff you see on TV about dinging bells and ulcer-stricken traders pacing the floor of the New York Stock Exchange? It’s theater. The real speculative economy lives invisibly in little wires that go to nodes in out-of-the-way places, monitored by computer, shares bought and sold by algorithm. If you send a sell order, it might get intercepted for a fraction of a second by an intermediary that can manipulate the order to squeeze off one one-hundredth of a penny in profit—small on the individual level but big when you consider the millions of trades made every day. Both the system and that process are considerably more complex than that, but this fact remains: It dawned on someone that a person could grow rich laying ever faster optic cables to selected clients, cutting deals with the governments of towns and counties “in order to be able to tunnel through them,” all perfectly legal if not exactly in the spirit of the market. Lewis follows his tried-and-true methods of taking a big story of this sort and deconstructing it to key players, some on the inside, some on the outside, at least one an unlikely hero. In this case, that unlikely hero is an exceedingly mild-mannered Japanese-Canadian banker who assembled a team of techies and numbers nerds to track the nefarious ways of the HFT world—that is, the high-frequency traders and the firms that engaged in “dark pool arbitrage” as just another asset in their portfolios of corruption.

If you’ve ever had the feeling that the system is out for itself at your expense, well, look no further. A riveting, maddening yarn that is causing quite a stir already, including calls for regulatory reform.

Pub Date: March 31, 2014

ISBN: 978-0-393-24466-3

Page Count: 288

Publisher: Norton

Review Posted Online: April 3, 2014

Kirkus Reviews Issue: May 1, 2014

Of a piece with the work of Tracy Kidder, Henry Petroski and other popular explainers of technology and science—geeky...

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HOW WE GOT TO NOW

SIX INNOVATIONS THAT MADE THE MODERN WORLD

Best-selling author Johnson (Where Good Ideas Come From: The Natural History of Innovation, 2010, etc.) continues his explorations of what he calls the “hummingbird effect,” unforeseeable chains of influence that change the world.

An innovation, writes the author, typically arises in one field—chemistry, say, or cryptography. But it does not rise alone—“ideas are fundamentally networks of other ideas,” and those tributary ideas likely came from many sources and disciplines, conditioned by the intellectual resources available at the time. Da Vinci aside, the author notes that even the most brilliant 17th-century inventor couldn’t have hit on the refrigerator, which “simply wasn’t part of the adjacent possible at that moment.” A couple of centuries later, it was, thanks to changes in our understanding of materials, physics, chemistry and other areas. Johnson isn’t the first writer to note that such things as the can opener were game-changers, but he has a pleasing way of spinning out the story to include all sorts of connections as seen through the lens of “long zoom” history, which looks at macro and micro events simultaneously. Sometimes he writes in a sort of rah-rah way that, taken to extremes, could dumb the enterprise down intolerably, as when he opines, “silicon dioxide for some reason is incapable of rearranging itself back into the orderly structure of crystal.” Take out “for some reason” and replace with “because of the laws of physics,” and things look brighter. However, Johnson’s look at six large areas of innovation, from glassmaking to radio broadcasting (which involves the products of glassmaking, as it happens), is full of well-timed discoveries, and his insistence on the interdisciplinary nature of invention and discovery gives hope to the English and art history majors in the audience.

Of a piece with the work of Tracy Kidder, Henry Petroski and other popular explainers of technology and science—geeky without being overly so and literate throughout.

Pub Date: Sept. 30, 2014

ISBN: 978-1-59463-296-9

Page Count: 304

Publisher: Riverhead

Review Posted Online: July 27, 2014

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Aug. 15, 2014

Isaacson weaves prodigious research and deftly crafted anecdotes into a vigorous, gripping narrative about the visionaries...

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THE INNOVATORS

HOW A GROUP OF INVENTORS, HACKERS, GENIUSES, AND GEEKS CREATED THE DIGITAL REVOLUTION

A panoramic history of technological revolution.

“Innovation occurs when ripe seeds fall on fertile ground,” Aspen Institute CEO Isaacson (Steve Jobs, 2011, etc.) writes in this sweeping, thrilling tale of three radical innovations that gave rise to the digital age. First was the evolution of the computer, which Isaacson traces from its 19th-century beginnings in Ada Lovelace’s “poetical” mathematics and Charles Babbage’s dream of an “Analytical Engine” to the creation of silicon chips with circuits printed on them. The second was “the invention of a corporate culture and management style that was the antithesis of the hierarchical organization of East Coast companies.” In the rarefied neighborhood dubbed Silicon Valley, new businesses aimed for a cooperative, nonauthoritarian model that nurtured cross-fertilization of ideas. The third innovation was the creation of demand for personal devices: the pocket radio; the calculator, marketing brainchild of Texas Instruments; video games; and finally, the holy grail of inventions: the personal computer. Throughout his action-packed story, Isaacson reiterates one theme: Innovation results from both “creative inventors” and “an evolutionary process that occurs when ideas, concepts, technologies, and engineering methods ripen together.” Who invented the microchip? Or the Internet? Mostly, Isaacson writes, these emerged from “a loosely knit cohort of academics and hackers who worked as peers and freely shared their creative ideas….Innovation is not a loner’s endeavor.” Isaacson offers vivid portraits—many based on firsthand interviews—of mathematicians, scientists, technicians and hackers (a term that used to mean anyone who fooled around with computers), including the elegant, “intellectually intimidating,” Hungarian-born John von Neumann; impatient, egotistical William Shockley; Grace Hopper, who joined the Army to pursue a career in mathematics; “laconic yet oddly charming” J.C.R. Licklider, one father of the Internet; Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, and scores of others.

Isaacson weaves prodigious research and deftly crafted anecdotes into a vigorous, gripping narrative about the visionaries whose imaginations and zeal continue to transform our lives.

Pub Date: Oct. 7, 2014

ISBN: 978-1-4767-0869-0

Page Count: 544

Publisher: Simon & Schuster

Review Posted Online: July 22, 2014

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Aug. 15, 2014

Whether you view Snowden’s act as patriotic or treasonous, this fast-paced, densely detailed book is the narrative of first...

THE SNOWDEN FILES

THE INSIDE STORY OF THE WORLD'S MOST WANTED MAN

A newsworthy, must-read book about what prompted Edward Snowden to blow the whistle on his former employer, the National Security Agency, and what likely awaits him for having done so.

In June 2013, the Guardian published the first of the revelations of the “Snowden file”—a huge trove of data, “thousands of documents and millions of words”—put in its lap by way of columnist Glenn Greenwald. Guardian foreign correspondent Harding (co-author: WikiLeaks: Inside Julian Assange’s War on Secrecy, 2011, etc.) re-creates the curious trail that led Snowden to Greenwald and that led him to leak those documents in the first place. The author casts the prime motivation as a kind of revulsion born of Snowden’s experience as an analyst knee-deep in material that—it is very clear—was none of the NSA’s business, reinforced by Snowden’s time stationed in the relative freedom of Switzerland. It is also clear that Snowden’s act was premeditated, though not out of anti-Americanism (he’s a Ron Paul–type libertarian, it seems) and not for monetary impulse, though he could have sold the documents to any one of a number of foreign powers. Harding’s narrative covers numerous serial stories that developed from Snowden’s decision: first, the cloak-and-dagger work that got the files to Greenwald, then the NSA’s efforts and those of the larger American government to curb the post-publication damage (sometimes via British proxies), then Snowden’s flight into Russian exile in order to avoid the fate of fellow whistle-blower Bradley Manning. Harding closes with the thought that Snowden may have no other home for some time to come—but that even wider implications remain to be explored, including the possibility that British activists might be able to introduce something like the First Amendment to protect its press in the future.

Whether you view Snowden’s act as patriotic or treasonous, this fast-paced, densely detailed book is the narrative of first resort.

Pub Date: Feb. 11, 2014

ISBN: 978-0-8041-7352-0

Page Count: 352

Publisher: Vintage

Review Posted Online: Feb. 11, 2014

Kirkus Reviews Issue: March 1, 2014

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