January 23, 2012

Book Idea

There are plenty of great computing books that are specialized to each and every aspect of CS Theory or programming. I got an idea to write a book similar to one of my favorite books of all time The Way Things Work: An Illustrated Encyclopedia of Technology. This book was life changing for me as a child. I've never looked at speakers, washing machines, irons, or anything with a motor in it the same way. It also led to a multitude of broken electronics in my house, as I became adept with a screwdriver. I would like to cover these topics with a depth of knowledge approach, starting with a high level question like the ones listed below, and dive as deeply as possible into answering each one completely. I'm probably going to draw the line at the electrical signal level because that's where my expertise stops, but could be convinced to go further if that would be interesting without getting too boring.

The kinds of questions I want to cover are:

  • What happens when I type a URL into a browser window and hit enter?
  • What happens when I type ls -l at a unix command prompt?
  • How does making a call on Skype work?
  • How does database replication work?
  • How does file compression work?
  • How does playing an MP3 work?
  • How does sending an email work?
  • What happens to my credit card data when I buy things online? (HTTPS and security)

I know there are a ton of places on the web where you could get the answer to these questions, and copy-pasting any one of them will get you a multitude of documents of differing quality and age. I'm looking to write something that's easy enough to read for someone without programming/networking/serious computing experience. Much of this has been ‘inspired’ by SOPA proceedings, and a clip I saw from the Daily show, where a few less tactful Representatives said the words “I'm not a nerd, so I don't get how this internet thing works”. The video, interesting bit starts at 3:30. I want to write something accessible enough for my mom, or congressman. I have a few other things that I would like to discuss in it that I think are of paramount importance, like DNS propagation and filesystems, but don't really know how to pose those as questions that someone without experience would ask. I'm going to start working on it this week, and should have at least one of those answered by the end of the month. I'll post it and see if anyone likes it, and what I should do differently.

I'm having trouble visualizing how it would be structured, because at the end of almost everything internet related would be TCP/IP, which is pretty dry material if you're really just wondering about emails. I'll have to think more on this, and come up with a way to present it from a high enough level where if you don't care, you can skip it.