Tagged: Computers

Mini review: “Coders: Who They Are, What They Think and How They Are Changing Our World” by Clive Thompson (audiobook edition)

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.

Mini review: “The Soul Of A New Machine” by Tracy Kidder

This wonderful slice of computing history comes from 1982 and tells the background story of the creation of a new computer by a team at the company Data General. They had a successful line of 16-bit computers but the business was being threatened by competitors who were already producing 32-bit machines.

I’d never heard of Data General but it turns out that at the end of the 1970s they were a big deal, although a lot more brash and rough around the edges than their competitors such as IBM.

There is always a concern with a book this old that the issues would no longer be relevant, the technology archaic. Neither is true. Processors have advanced in the meantime (and to some extent regressed – see below) but they still represent the core of a system. The issues the author raises are more than just technical – his focus is on the personalities of the team members, the challenges and the pressures they face.

In the last couple of years we have seen issues such as Spectre and Meltdown arising from flaws introduced in CPUs in the 1990’s, so processor design and microcode still impact modern computing. Also, check out the new Mac Pro from Apple – a computer that they had to design and build from scratch under severe time pressure to ensure that the company kept an important section of it’s user-base happy. I’m sure that the experience of the engineers on that project would echo what happened decades ago in the Data General offices.

The author does an excellent job of explaining the technical issues without going too deep (or finds a suitable metaphor to put his point across) and keeps the pace flowing nicely.

And to wrap it up, the bitter-sweet ending rings true – he managed to capture a special moment in time and did it brilliantly. You are fully engaged in the story and the people. This is an excellent book and I recommend it to everyone, especially if you work in IT.

• Wikipedia: Data General

• The Computer Museum History Center: Core 2.1 – The Data General Nova (direct link to PDF file)

• Wired: Souls, Lost and Found (2008)

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

• Spare Cycles: Mini review: “Troublemakers: How a Generation of Silicon Valley Upstarts Invented The Future” by Leslie Berlin

• Spare Cycles: Article: “The Tinkerings of Robert Noyce” by Tom Wolfe

Mini review: “A Logic Named Joe” by Murray Leinster (From “Machines That Think”, an early 1980s science fiction short story anthology)

logic_named_joe

For a while now I have been reading more about the history of computing (in the USA and in particular Silicon Valley).  It started with the sublime article “The Tinkerings of Robert Noyce” by Tom Wolfe in Esquire magazine and followed by the revelatory – to me at least – Rolling Stone article “SPACEWAR” by Stewart Brand.  Next up was the wonderful book “Troublemakers” which covered Silicon Valley from 1969 to 1984.

The reason I’m interested in this is because the more I find out about the history of computing, the more I realise that the world that we live in today was conceived several decades ago.  Ideas that we think of as modern originated back then.

What they predicted back then, we are enmeshed in today.

The story “A Logic Named Joe” features in “Machines That Think”, a science fiction short story anthology from 1984.

The story is just 17 pages long but I was astounded.  This story from 72 years ago appears to predict the internet, artificial intelligence and some of the less salubrious social consequences of having the world’s information at our fingertips.

The introduction talks about the importance of the story due to the way it predicted widespread ownership of computers, made possible by the reduction in size and cost of the machines.  In fact, the world the story was describing had not yet arrived in 1984 – it was too early to comment on the story and truly understand how predictive it would become.

You can read the story in full and listen to the excellent radio adaptation – both highly recommended.

 

 

 

 

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.

dynabook

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

ipad_dynabook

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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