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Cover Image of Computing for Ordinary Mortals


Title: Computing for Ordinary Mortals

Authors: Robert St. Amant

Publisher: Oxford University Press

Copyright: 2012

ISBN13: 978-0-19-977530-9

Length: 246

Price: $29.95

Rating: 95%

The publisher provided a free review copy of this book.

Robert St. Amant, a professor at North Carolina State University, wrote Computing for Ordinary Mortals to describe the ideas behind computer technology for the non-technical reader. His stated goal is to provide enough information so anyone, from high school seniors thinking of studying computer science at university to bloggers writing about computer technologies, can analyze and discuss computing effectively. He succeeds admirably.

St. Amant's book appeals to me on a personal level. I don't consider myself a highly technical person. I've had a successful 15-year career as a technical writer, but I focus on consumer and business products. I try to act as a translator between the technical and the non-technical worlds, providing the context and information required to give beginning and low intermediate users the skills they need to use business software effectively.

My undergraduate degree is in political science, so when I managed to talk my way into a position at The MITRE Corporation one of the first things my managers did was ensure I enrolled in the MS in Information Systems program at George Mason University. The goal of that program was to provide individuals with little or no formal technical training with the knowledge and credentials needed to succeed in the computer technology industry. I took courses on topics such as basic computer programming, data structures, database design, computer hardware, networking, and operations research. I didn't finish my degree, but the knowledge I gained provided the background I needed to move forward after I left DC.

 As a male student in my early 20s, no one questioned whether I belonged in the program. Life is different for young women, both due to traditional gender roles and what appear to be real differences among males and females. Young males tend to want to prove their mastery over formal systems (e.g., cars or computers), while young women want to know how they can use what they're learning to make things better. Therefore, in general, female students aren't driven to develop the deep understanding of computers that most university programs assume incoming students possess. Some institutions, notably Harvey Mudd, Carnegie Mellon, MIT, and the University of British Columbia, have attracted and retained significant numbers of female computer science students by altering their curriculum and environment. Maria Klawe, president of Harvey Mudd College, notes that her institution divides its introductory computer science class into two tracks based on a student's prior programming experience to ease the transition for students with less technical knowledge.

Computing for Ordinary Mortals fits into this environment by describing the ideas behind computing, from the programming-level details of registers and indirection to the principles of user interaction design and artificial intelligence. St. Amant has an engaging, fun style that effectively communicates how, at a conceptual level, computing works. He's obviously developed this approach in the classroom his stories and examples are fine-tuned to explain the ideas behind computing. I recommend St. Amant's book to anyone with an interest in computing, or as a gift to a student who's interested in computer science but isn't sure they have the background they need to succeed. Computing for Ordinary Mortals will help them on their way.

Curtis Frye is the editor of Technology and Society Book Reviews. He is the author of more than 30 books, including Improspectives, his look at applying the principles of improv comedy to business and life. His list includes more than 20 books for Microsoft Press and O'Reilly Media; he has also created over a dozen online training courses for In addition to his writing, Curt is a keynote speaker and entertainer. You can find more information about him at


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