Tagged: Books

Article: “SPACEWAR” by Stewart Brand (Rolling Stone magazine, December 1972)

• 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.

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It looks like an iPad with the on-screen keyboard showing…

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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.

 

Conclusion

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:

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Mini review: “Dodgers” by Bill Beverly

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I came across this by chance and just could not resist given the reviews and the awards it won last year.

It is the story of a group of young black guys from a rough part of Los Angeles who are sent on a road trip across America to kill a judge when their narcotics operation is busted by the police.

Its pared-back tone belies the book’s emotional impact. This is more than a journey in a van for the main character – it is a rite of passage. I read through the second half of the book in one sitting one evening and found myself thinking about it all the next morning.

Somehow I managed to miss the fact that there was an audiobook version (it sounds good too…), so I went with the paper version.

Given that the book clocks in at only 300 pages there is a lot of story and character development built in.  A number of twists happen out of the blue and without fanfare that mess with the boys’ mission.

I wondered about the plausibility of such young characters being able to do what the plot asks of them but it becomes clear as the story progresses that it wouldn’t be difficult for people to disappear through the cracks of society and never be found. If anybody actually cares enough to look for them in the first place.

Take care if you are sensitive to sometimes harsh language. These are young guys gassing amongst themselves in a confined space. Reflect on this and decide accordingly.

I’m very pleased that I chose to hitch a ride on this particular literary adventure and would highly recommend it.

Wouldn’t fancy doing it for real though.

Mini review: “The Final Empire (Mistborn Book 1)” by Brandon Sanderson (audiobook version)

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A while back I was in the mood for reading some fantasy (not something that happens very often) and I considered starting Game of Thrones but that seemed like the start of something far too big to be practical – there’s so much of it and ultimately it is unfinished.  I had checked out the first chapter of the audiobook and couldn’t imagine myself listening to the whole book.

So I looked elsewhere and having seen this recommended online I gave it a try.  It is the first book in the “Mistborn” series.

The story involves a plot to bring down the Lord Ruler, the ultimate evil power controlling the Final Empire, thought by many to be an immortal god.  The environment has been ruined, with ash coming down from the sky and mists coming at night.

I think that this is a story aimed at a young adult audience but is a good read for everyone – I certainly enjoyed it.   This is a story that could appeal to people who don’t want their fantasy too violent or graphic (Game of Thrones?) or too filled with dwarves and elves (Lord of the Rings).  Spoiler: there are no dragons.

The author has come up with some good ideas – principally that there is a race of people who have the ability to ingest and “burn” metals to give themselves enhanced physical abilities.  I always think these things sound a bit strange when discussed outside of the world that has been created but the “magic system” is plausible and works well – the details can be found here but don’t rush to read it if you are interested in reading the book.  It won’t spoil anything but the book does a good job of explaining things.

A note on the narration of the audiobook: I had never heard of the narrator (Michael Kramer) before but he does a brilliant, flawless job.  It was a pleasure to listen to. He is a professional audiobook narrator and it shows.  I’m very impressed.  I’ll be looking out for his name in the future.

This is a long book – nearly 25 hours for the audiobook – but the story never lags or seems padded out.  There are another two books after this one (and that is just the first trilogy of the “Mistborn” series) but there does seem to be a lot more story to tell.  I’m sure I’ll return to the series at some point but the next books are even longer than this one so they will have to wait.

Still, this is a slice of fantasy I can recommend.

 

Mini review: “The Right Stuff” by Tom Wolfe

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This is the story of the early (American) pioneers of supersonic flight (breaking the sound barrier) and the space race. And it is astounding.

Early on the book tries to nail what it was in the personalities of the men – test pilots from the Navy and Air Force – who risked their lives to go faster or higher than the others, to prove to the world that they were one of the special few at the top of their game. They had the skills, the ego, the guts… the right stuff.

As the book progresses it changes from expressing the concepts and ideas as to what constitutes the Right Stuff to a very character-driven history, and it definitely gets better as it goes along.  The first few chapters are written very much in the Tom Wolfe style – with lots of exclamation! – and quite a lot of repetition.  The repetition used for stylistic effect works well.  The repetition to ram an idea down your throat, not so much.

But then the story starts to blossom, the forcefulness of the writing style fades into the background and you get enveloped in the feel of the events.  It is like you are being given privileged access to a special time and place; you are invited to participate in the thrill of being on the cutting edge.  You are getting insight into achievements that will change history and the way that people look at the world.

The narrative focuses very much on the people involved but undeniably the two stars are ace pilot Chuck Yeager and the astronaut John Glenn.  It was amazing how little I knew about the rest of the people, in particular the other 6 astronauts chosen to take part in the early space missions.  I kept myself away from Wikipedia so that their stories were new to me, but these are names that have faded in the collective memory. How?

By the end of the book I was enthralled, and when I finished I had to spend a little time just thinking about the scale of the achievements involved and the sheer joyous ride I had been on.  I’m sure there are several excellent and more conventional histories of the space race, but Tom Wolfe has pulled off something very special here.  He has managed to bring out the emotion and the pure magic of the events.

 

 

Mini review: “Slow Horses” by Mick Herron (audiobook version)

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In the British secret service someone qualifies as a “slow horse” if they have messed up in some way.  They have failed whilst on duty or possess some frowned-upon character flaw and have been exiled to Slough House in London.  No glittering career, just dead-end jobs to do.  The prospect of carrying out a real operation is a pipe-dream.  Everyone has their own secret, their own reason for being there.

Things change when a young man is kidnapped and his captors threaten to behead him live on the internet.  The slow horses get pulled into the situation and called to action, but all is not as it seems.

I came across this book by chance when Amazon was selling it cheaply.  The reviews were good and the associated audiobook was also on special offer, so I gave it a go.

I’m glad I did.  This is a quite a short, character-driven story and weaved through the whole thing is a seam of black humour and a healthy disrespect for those in power.  I’m a big fan of Len Deighton and in particular his stories featuring weathered British spy Bernard Samson.  If you like those you will feel right at home here.

With regard to the narration of the audiobook, at first I thought that the narrator was a bit dour but after a while you realise that this is perfect for the tone of the story.  The humour comes over well, different accents are handled well and each character has their own voice.  He can also ramp up the pace when necessary, something done in a seamless manner.

I really enjoyed the atmosphere of the book and the detailed characters.  There are another couple of books in the series, and I’ll definitely be back.

 

 

Mini review: “Spy Games” by Adam Brookes (audiobook version)

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This is the second book featuring a British journalist getting mixed up with the UK secret service.  I was not a big fan of the first (audio)book, Night Heron, mainly as a result of a rather bland reading by the narrator.

This is much better, with a story that covers a lot of ground – China, Ethiopia, Thailand.  A bitter rivalry between two influential Chinese families has international consequences.

The plot starts off broad, introducing a number of characters, but gradually becomes more focused until the core of the story reveals itself.  The pressure is kept up all the way through the book and the story is well paced.  You do not have to have read the first book.

In relation to the audiobook in particular, there is a different narrator this time and he does a really good job.  He handles accents well, so that each character is an individual and he puts over the tension and emotion of the story.

This is a very good book.  You want to keep reading – it’s addictive stuff.  If you like spy stories this comes highly recommended.

 

 

Mini review: “Winter: A Berlin Family 1899-1945” by Len Deighton (audiobook version)

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Winter is a prequel to Len Deighton’s three trilogies featuring weathered English spy Bernard Samson.  The inside cover of my old copy of the printed book explains why it is the “fourth book of the trilogy“, meaning that it should be read between the “Game, Set and Match” and “Hook, Line and Sinker” trilogies.

I read the trilogies for the first time over a decade ago and did not read Winter until later – I did not know about it at the time.

Over the last couple of years the books have been re-issued as audiobooks and I listened to them as they came out.”Game, Set and Match” came out in 2014 / early 2015, “Hook, Line and Sinker” followed later in 2015.  Winter was not released until February 2016 which means that it has not been possible to listen to the books in their correct reading order until now .  If you are interested in reading the Bernard Samson series then read Winter in its rightful place: fourth.

You won’t be disappointed.

The book is brilliant.  It is the best book in the Samson saga (although the masterful Spy Sinker comes close).  It is at this point in the proceedings  that you start to realise the depth of planning that the author has gone to when putting this saga together.

Winter is very rewarding if you have read the preceding Samson stories. Getting to know Bernard’s father Brian and Werner’s father Isaac sheds more light on these central characters.  Then there are the characters who only appear as old people in the trilogies – you get to see them in their youth.  Certain influential characters from the trilogies have walk-on roles, giving you an idea of how they start out.

The story begins at the turn of the 20th century with the birth of a second son to Harold Winter, a German businessman.  Winter is the story of the two brothers, with the focus on the younger son Paul.  You follow their experiences as they grow up, through the first World War, the inter-war years and the second World War.

The eldest son, Peter, has an artistic streak and goes to work in the company firm.  Paul goes into the military, has a dreadful experience in World War 1 and becomes a lawyer and a bureaucrat in the Nazi party.

One of the special aspects of this story is how it depicts the rise of the Nazis and how the German people turned to their political point of view.  It is very unsettling seeing how the treatment of Jews moved from persecution to extermination and how the Nazi leadership seized control, stamping out any sign of dissent.

A strength of the book is how you can like the character of Paul and be sympathetic towards him yet you are increasingly appalled by his actions and attitudes.

You also get to experience the war from a German perspective, which becomes particularly impactful as you head towards the end of the story and see how the Germans themselves suffered through the devastation caused by RAF bombing of cities and huge losses on the battlefield.  The Russian invasion of Germany was carried out without mercy. (This is also highlighted in Field Grey by Philip Kerr).

A word about the narration: the book is read by the same narrator as all the other Bernard Samson novels so you are listening to a voice you are already familiar with.  He does the job well, as professionally as ever.  However, there is one oddity here that I found initially off-putting: the text often mentions the different regional accents of Germany and how they sound to people from other parts of the country.  To get over this point the narrator does not try to have the characters talking with different German accents but instead uses “equivalent” British accents.  You get used to it but it is strange at first, and is particularly jarring right at the start of the story as you are immediately assaulted by a very distinct regional English accent.  It’s not what you expect when you start listening to a book set in early 20th century Germany.  I could understand how some listeners might not be able to get over this stylistic hurdle, although I can see why the decision was made to present the narration in this way.

Also see…

The “Game, Set and Match” trilogy:

• Spare Cycles: Mini review: “Berlin Game” by Len Deighton (audiobook version)

• Spare Cycles: Mini review: “Mexico Set” by Len Deighton (audiobook version)

• Spare Cycles: Mini review: “London Match” by Len Deighton (audiobook version)

The “Hook, Line and Sinker” trilogy:

• Spare Cycles: Mini review: “Spy Hook” by Len Deighton (audiobook version)

• Spare Cycles: Mini review: “Spy Line” by Len Deighton (audiobook version)

• Spare Cycles: Mini review: “Spy Sinker” by Len Deighton (audiobook version)

Other:

• Spare Cycles: Len Deighton books (my original reviews of the books)

• Harper Collins: Len Deighton audiobooks