This book is a must read if you are considering becoming a coder – and also if you work with them. The first half or so of the book goes into detail about how most people get into writing software (formal education or being self taught), the nature of the job (what they do all day), possible career paths and the personality characteristics found in many coders – both good and bad. It looks at the different types of people coming into the industry, the misleading myths that have built up, the particular challenges for women and the realistic outlook if you are looking for a mid-career job change – coming in from a different industry. Very interesting, and not something that I recall seeing dealt with in such detail elsewhere.
The remainder of the book examines the tech scene in more general terms – a look at the early days of computing and how people got into computers in previous decades, the decline in the proportion of women in the profession over time, the rise of AI and machine learning, the social problems (little predicted at the beginning but now very much in evidence) that arise with becoming a massive scale platform and how the venture capital industry determines how companies have to behave.
There is a bit of repetition as things that are mentioned briefly in the first part are dealt with in more depth in the second, but the author does a good-enough job at bringing things back to how these things are relevant to coders. The final chapter on “blue collar” coders is particularly good, so the book finishes on a high. It should give people thinking about going into this field some things to consider, which can only be a good thing.
The narration of the audiobook is interesting – often the soul of these technology / business books is sucked out of them by a narrator who talks in some “default-American” tone, unremarkable and uninspiring. At first I thought that this was going to be yet another example, but the performance is more nuanced – it feels like it is the author reading their own text but it is more professional. He gets the tone just right.
This unconventional, informative and entertaining book looks at the history of Silicon Valley between 1969 and 1984 by interweaving the personal stories of seven people who are not necessarily widely known.
I was drawn to the book by the fact that Bob Taylor featured, who I knew played an important role at Xerox PARC and at the beginnings of the ARPANET, which would go on to form the basis of the internet. I had recently read about him in an article in Rolling Stone magazine from 1972 and wanted to find out more. Mike Markkula was also a name that rang a bell but I did not know about his story. It was really interesting to find out the essential role he played in the early days of Apple Computer – I follow Apple news closely so I was surprised how little I knew about him.
It was also good to have a couple of women amongst the men – this book takes a good look at their particular battles against the attitudes of the time. Having said that, it is not the only reason they have been included. All the stories – regardless of gender – highlight the skills, hard work and dedication needed to succeed, and also how they dealt with setback or failure.
What was occurring in Silicon Valley at that time really was remarkable, even if it did not always seem that way to the people there at the time, and even if the magic of that moment was not to last.
I would highly recommend this book to anyone interested in Silicon Valley, especially if they work in the field of IT – a bit of insight into how we got to where we are today would be valuable, and this is an easy, likeable read.
• Spare Cycles: Article: “The Tinkerings of Robert Noyce” by Tom Wolfe (an excellent article if you want to go back to the very earliest days of the Valley, from the 1950’s to the 1970’s).
• Read the article: “SPACEWAR” by Stewart Brand (Rolling Stone magazine, December 1972)
I buy quite a few books that then sit on a shelf, Kindle or Audible account for several years. Since the year 2000 I’ve had “Dealers of Lightning”, a history of the earliest days of (American) computing, waiting to be read. The other day I was flicking through the notes at the back of the book and this article was mentioned so I tracked it down online.
SPACEWAR is an article that appeared in Rolling Stone magazine in December 1972 written by Stewart Brand. Brand is fondly remembered by older technologists as the founder of an early online community called the WELL and the Whole Earth Catalog, a late 60’s / 70’s catalogue for members of the American counter-culture.
Friends, I won’t be able to explain every computer-technical term that comes by. Fortunately you don’t need them to get the gist of what’s happening.
A distinct, intelligent vibe
There is a distinct, intelligent vibe in the style of writing, although I wonder how much readers at the time were able to decipher what the author meant when he describes what is happening during the game. It makes sense to people today because we are all familiar with video games, but to put this article in some kind of context it appeared one week after the arcade game Pong was released and six years before Space Invaders.
Talking of vibe, this article reminds me a lot of Tom Wolfe’s wonderful look at the invention of the integrated circuit (microchip) and the birth of Silicon Valley in “The Tinkerings of Robert Noyce” from Esquire magazine. If you haven’t read either article, start with Wolfe’s. You won’t regret it.
Plus ça change…
Something else you notice is how things haven’t changed much in 45 years – for example Artificial Intelligence is still the bleeding edge in technical prowess…
There’s a speech recognition project. There’s the hand-eye project, in which the computer is learning to see and visually correct its robot functions. There’s work on symbolic computation and grammatical inference.
…and the image of the computer geek (“Computer Bum” or “hacker”) was also already being cultivated:
The hackers are the technicians of this science – “It’s a term of derision and also the ultimate compliment.” They are the ones who translate human demands into code that the machines can understand and act on. They are legion. Fanatics with a potent new toy. A mobile new-found elite, with its own apparat, language and character, its own legends and humor.
The beginnings of the internet
There is also some history of ARPA (Advanced Research Projects Agency), from which came the Arpanet and subsequently the internet.
“90 percent of all good things that I can think of that have been done in computer science have been done funded by that agency. Chances that they would have been funded elsewhere are very low.”
Some of today’s technology jargon was in use back then too – there is mention of users sitting down “on-line” with a computer, and the ARPA Network being “up” (working) or “down” (crashed).
The dream for the Net was that researchers at widely separated facilities could share special resources, dip into each other’s files, and even work on-line together on design problems too complex to solve alone.
“How Net usage will evolve is uncertain”
Also, they saw possible opportunities and risks when connecting machines together, echoing today’s debates over internet freedoms vs surveillance:
How Net usage will evolve is uncertain. There’s a curious mix of theoretical fascination and operational resistance around the scheme. The resistance may have something to do with reluctances about equipping a future Big Brother and his Central Computer. The fascination resides in the thorough rightness of computers as communications instruments, which implies some revolutions.
They were aware that the Net had the opportunity to disrupt industries and even back then they picked out the news industry and the music biz:
From anywhere on the Net you can log in and get the news that’s coming live over the wire … Project that to household terminals, and so much for newspapers (in present form).
Since huge quantities of information can be computer-digitalized and transmitted, music researchers could, for example, swap records over the Net with “essentially perfect fidelity.” So much for record stores (in present form).
Their ideas, our world
One aspect that came over very strongly – reading this with the benefit of hindsight – is how the ideas from this group of people have shaped the computing environment we have today. Some of the projects they were working on or discussing may not have had names back then but they do now. Examples? How about the paperless office or desktop publishing.
But it was the picture of the “Dynabook” that took my breath away.
It looks like an iPad with the on-screen keyboard showing…
It is described as:
a hand-held stand-alone interactive-graphic computer… It’ll have a graphics capability which’ll let you make sketches, make drawings… Working with a stylus on the display screen… incorporate music in it so you can use it for composing… It has the Smalltalk language capability which lets people program their own things very easily… And of course it plays Spacewar.”
That description sounds to me like the Apple Pencil, iTunes / Garageband, Swift Playgrounds and Apps.
Products from Apple – the biggest company in the world today by market capitalization.
(Addendum: Some product names from Apple include PowerBook, iBook, Macbook)
Ideas at the core of Apple?
Now having discovered this article I think that Steve Jobs’ ideas on the nature of computing could have been inspired by this kind of reporting. This article from Rolling Stone came out in December 1972, more than 3 years before the founding of Apple in 1976. He was 17 when this article came out.
One of the ideals that comes across throughout this article is what the impact could be once computers are accessible to everyone:
away from hugeness and centrality, toward the small and the personal, toward putting maximum computer power in the hands of every individual who wants it… They’ll reach millions when computer power becomes like telephone power…. I think it’s important to bring computing to the people… Far beyond borrowing some one else’s computer is having your own computer… Computing power to the people.
That sounds like the Macintosh – the computer for the rest of us.
There is so much here to enjoy. I heartily recommend you read this if you have any interest in computing. I just wonder how many more of these articles are out there in old general interest magazines.
The article in all its 1970’s glory:
I’m not a big jazz fan, so this has come as a nice surprise.
A couple of nights ago I was flicking through the jazz section of Apple Music and I discovered the new album by Kamasi Washington, who I was lucky enough to see play live last year at the Royal Albert Hall in London as part of the Late Night Proms series.
Venturing further I came across Cécile McLorin Salvan’s new live album. She has a wonderful voice, total control and a delicious sense of humour.
That’s typically as far as my interest in jazz has taken me for a long time.
Then I took a punt on a couple of cool-looking albums – by Keyon Harrold and the Blue Note All Stars – and loved them both.
I’ve still got a lot of listening to do to appreciate them all fully but I highly recommend you check them out:
Kamasi Washington – Harmony of Difference
Cécile McLorin Salvant – Dreams and Daggers
Keyon Harrold – The Mugician
Blue Note All Stars – Our Point of View
A couple of days ago I upgraded my iPhone 5 to iOS 7. Here are my first impressions, dealing mainly with the installation process and the new look and feel.
Installation went very smoothly: I was waiting for Software Update on the phone to tell me iOS 7 was available but it was not happening. I saw that I still had an update to do for version 6.1.4, so I ran that and shortly after the install completed iOS 7 popped up.
There are a coupIe of simple tips I’d recommend. Backup your phone before you start by connecting it to iTunes. Also, run any app updates that appear. I don’t have loads of apps, but I have quite a few, and last week (just before iOS7 came out) I had 13 updates to do all at once.
The iOS 7 update on the phone said it had downloaded, so I unplugged the phone from the computer and ran the installer. It took about 20 minutes, rebooted itself, gave me a Hello screen, and asked me to put in my Apple ID. Straightforward.
One weird thing – after all the things it got right – was that the time was wrong. I had to check the time zone – at that point it corrected itself. Two good things – I seem to have gotten back about 2 GB of disk space and battery life is unaffected.
I follow Apple-related news quite closely and knew what to expect. This is a big change in appearance, especially if you update without being aware this is going to happen. If you want to be prepared, check out the iOS 7 review, which will tell you all about it. Once you’ve upgraded you can’t go back.
From what I’d read I thought I might have some reservations about the interface appearing too “flat”, things in the background moving about too much and the text being too thin. In fact, I have no initial criticism of the interface. I think it is clean and crisp, with apps like Safari, Calendar and Notes receiving big changes for the better. Safari on iOS 6 looked ancient and I used Chrome instead. Now I’m giving Safari another go…
Things are “flatter” than before but there is depth – see the image above. Some windows sit on top of the interface when they appear. I didn’t get any moving backgrounds – the update preserved my background picture and Lock screen, just how I like it. For me, certain things are now easier – for example, turning on/off wifi and Bluetooth. Turning on 3G data is no longer hidden away as it was before.
After a bit of poking around, I got used to it very quickly. More jarring were apps that have changed their appearance to fit in wih the new look-and-feel. Some look distinctly different to how they did before, although a greater risk might be that many apps in the future end up looking very similar as they try to conform to the new styling. It is clear that we are in a time of transition though, as apps that have not been updated for iOS 7 yet retain the iOS6 styling and keyboard.
At least one of my apps (my much loved Drafts) has become iOS 7 only. I understand that there is a lot of new technology behind the scenes, so I look forward to seeing what apps can do once they no longer have to support older versions of the operating system.
In conclusion this has been a very successful upgrade, but do a bit of preparation before you start and realise that things will look distinctly different once it is done.