Aurora – A Book Review

Every now and then I enjoy reading a good science fiction book. This time I picked up ‘Aurora’ by Kim Stanley Robinson as it got raving reviews. Unfortunately I came out with quite the opposite opinion and I couldn’t even get myself to read the final 30 or 40 pages as the book is massively dystopian. Some people might like such books but I wouldn’t have bothered if I had known.

Read on for more details but beware of spoilers!

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Book Review: Mobile Unleashed – The History of ARM

mobile-unleashedAfter having taken a closer look at x86 processor with “Inside The Machine” I came across “Mobile Unleashed“, a book about the history of a non-Silicon Valley company and technology for a change that has significantly shaped the world of computing as we know it today: ARM.

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Book Review – The Billion Dollar Heist

bdhGood techno-thrillers with realistic plots and technical details are hard to come by and it seems they are mainly coming from what I would call “alternative authors” these days. Case in point are Chronos by William Hern, The Martian by Andy Weir and books by Mark Russinovich like Rouge Code that I’ve reviewed and recommended in the past. Here’s another one “The One Billion Dollar Heist” by Ben Lovejoy!

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Book Review – Where Wizzards Stay Up Late

wizzardsOn I go in my quest to learn more about the history of computing. After visiting the 1940s and 50s in Pioneer Programmer, I jumped forward a decade and a half to learn a bit more about the origins of the Internet.

While I knew that the Internet grew out of the ARPANET I had but a fuzzy idea so far. After reading Katie Hafner and Matthew Lyon’s account “Where Wizzards Stay Up Late” about how engineers at Bolt, Beranek and Newman (BBN) turned the ideas and visions of J.C.R. Licklider and others into reality and how people who’s names are well known in the industry today such as Vint Cerf and Bob Kahn got hooked and designed TCP/IP, a lot of things have become much clearer.

An interesting side note: The book was published long long ago in 1998 but since only events up until the mid-1980’s are described the book has aged well and is as readable and interesting today as it was over 15 years ago.

Coming back to the content, I found the book is very well researched and written and it’s fun to follow the story line. One thing I got a bit frustrated about at times was that it addresses a non-technical audience and hence doesn’t really go into the technical details. Instead it often tries to describe its way around the geeky stuff. Fortunately there’s the Internet and Wikipedia so it’s easy to get the details on specific parts of the story including easy access to original documents.

In other words a perfect symbiosis of story telling and online background research. Actually, it’s an interesting recursion as I used the Internet to download the book and also for doing background research, which means that the Internet practically tells it’s own story.

A highly recommended read!

Book Review: Pioneer Programmer

If you have some background in computer science you’ve probably come across the term “von Neumann Architecture” before. The term goes back to the brilliant mathematician John von Neumann who, for the first time in 1945, described the computer architecture we still use today with an arithmetic logic unit, a control unit, registers and combined program and data memory in a seminal paper on the EDVAC. As pointed out in the Wikipedia article there is quite some controversy about this paper as it was only intended as a first internal draft for review and only bears van Neumann’s name but not those of the main inventors of the concepts, John Mauchly and Presper Eckert. While intended as an internal paper it was still distributed to a larger community and thus it had the appearance that van Neumann had come with the ideas all by himself. While attempts were made to set the record straight, the term “von Neumann architecture” stuck and has remained in place up to the present day.

There is a lot of controversy about the reasons, motivation and character of Herman Goldstine to distribute the paper without consent. “Pioneer Programmer” the autobiography of Jean Jennings Bartik edited by Jon T. Kickmann and Kim D. Todd has a lot of background information on this and many other topics of the early days of computing in the United States from her point of view. Jean was a member of the initial team of programmers of the ENIAC, the first fully electronic computer in the mid-1940s and could thus witness this and many other events first hand and decided to set a number of things straight with her autobiography. Pretty much forgotten until many decades later, the first ENIAC programmer team consisted solely of female mathematicians as due to the war there was a shortage of male mathematicians and the boys were more interested in building the computing machines than to program them. Pioneer Programmer intends not to only set the record straight but also to tell the story of how women shaped early computing and to describe the difficulties they had in a male dominated scientific world in the US and Europe during that time and the decades afterward. A fascinating story that starts with her childhood on a farm in rural America and ends with the jobs and positive as well as negative experiences she had in the computing industry as a woman in the decades after leaving the ENIAC behind.

Probably not a very well known book but for those who are interested in the facts behind the stories of early computing a must read that I’ve very much enjoyed reading!

Book Review: CHRONOS

ChronosApart from books on computing history, well written techno-thrillers are another favorite of mine. I’m quite picky when it comes to this genre and I can’t stand novels with unrealistic plots or technology descriptions. Quite some time has passed since I read a techno-thriller so I was glad when William Hern, a long time colleague of mine approached me earlier this year and asked me if I was interested in proof-reading the novel he was working on.

The book’s called “CHRONOS” and the plot is as geeky and realistic as it can possibly be in a techno-thriller. The book starts with a quote that so very much describes the real world that I have to repeat it here:

“… most of the people in this world accept the fruits of technology in about the same way as a kitten accepts milk”

Jerry Pournelle

I could start talking about the story line now but as it twists and turns right from the beginning I would just end up writing a spoiler. So I won’t and just leave you with my recommendation that if you are into realistic techno-thrillers, want to learn a few interesting things along the way and if you know or do not know who Satoshi Nakamoto is, this is the book for you. Ups, already a spoiler right there…

Have fun!

Book Review: The Innovators

InnovatorsThe history of computing has me firmly in its grip and so after having read “Fire in the Valley” I continued with “The Innovators”. While the latest edition of the previous book mainly focused on what was going on in Silicon Valley in the 1970s to the 1990s, “The Innovators” expands the story back to Charles Babbage and Ada Lovelace in the 1850’s and ends in the 21st century with the creation and evolution of Google.

“The Innovators” is of course much briefer about what happened in Silicon Valley in the 1970s to 1990’s than the previous book I read. Instead it tells the stories of many other people, how they built on work of their predecessors and how their success was usually due to working in a team rather than doing something on their own all the way as it is often portrayed elsewhere. Also, it doesn’t focus on developments in only a single location it mentions how Konrad Zuse came up with his electromechanical computer in Germany in the 1940’s, Alan Turing in Great Britain, the computers that were built in Britain after the war, how the ENIAC in Philadelphia came to be, the women behind programming ENICAC like Grace Hopper and Jean Jennings, the story of John von Neumann, the Atanasov-Berry computer, how the transistor was invented, again by a team, at Bell labs, etc., etc., etc.

Beginning in the 1960’s the book then continues the the story with the move from transistors to integrated circuits and how Silicon Valley mushroomed from Shockley Semiconductors to Fairchild to Intel and, what I found to be one of the many interesting new insights I gained, that Intel was founded not as a processor company but to produce memory chips as that was seen as the major application of integrated circuits once it was understood of how to cram more than just a few transistors on a die. The microprocessor on a chip only came later and was not envisioned as a product when Intel was created.

I could go on and on about the book but to make it short, I very much enjoyed reading it as it doesn’t only convey facts but also tells the stories of the people and gives a sense of who these people were, how they were growing up and what drove them to do what they did.

Book Review: Fire In the Valley – 3rd Edition

After reading a couple of computing history books lately such as “Commodore – A Company On the Edge“, “Rebel Code” and “Diary of an 80s Computer Geek“, I’ve now turned to “Fire in The Valley“, by many regarded as one of the most important books around computing history in the 1970s and 80s. Originally written in 1984, it has seen updates over time and the current 3rd edition, published in 2014, contains a number of extra chapters to describe how the story continued in the 1990’s and 2000’s.

The part I enjoyed most was the beginning of the book as it goes into many details about how things started to happen before and especially after Ed Roberts created the Altair 8800 in 1974/75 about which I haven’t read before. At that time it was still more about people than about companies as in later parts of the book. I heard about the Homegrown Computer Club and it’s significance before but the book describes how it came into existence, the people that attended the meetings and the companies that were founded, became highly successful and then faded away again.

Arriving in the 1980’s, the story mostly revolves around the competition between IBM when it entered the market in 1981 and Apple. A bit but not much is told about how Atari and Commodore shaped the late 1970’s and especially the teenage years of many in the 1980’s with incredibly successful machines such as the C64, and later in the decade, the Atari ST line and the Amiga line of computers.

The Atari and Amiga were of course not out when the first edition of the book was published in 1984 so it wasn’t possible to include them in the story. In 1984 it was probably clear the business world would go the IBM clone way and only Apple at the time had a GUI based alternative, the Macintosh. At the time, Commodore and Atari were still selling 8-bit computers and it must have been clear they were no competition anymore with those products. Later on, when the second edition was published in 2010 it was clear that the Amiga and Atari ST systems, while hugely popular in the home computer domain, had had no impact on the business side of the industry. So perhaps this is the reason why they were left out once again but that is a speculation on my part. Whatever the reason is it’s a bit quite a pity as an important part of the overall story from a Silicon Valley point of view of computing history is thus missing.

Also, little is told of the competition that came and went, especially in the UK in the form of various Sinclair and Amstrad computers. Granted, the book is about “fire in the valley” and not fire coming from elsewhere.

I’m glad I read the third edition that was published in 2014 because the authors managed, apart from the missing home computer saga, to capture what has happened in the two and a half decades that followed the first edition of the book, i.e. Steve Jobs leaving and coming back to Apple, what happened in the meantime including how Microsoft crushed the competition with Windows and the industry turning post-PC, i.e. the emergence of mobile devices and devices built for a single purpose such as MP3 players.

Fire in the Valley – 3rd Edition” – a fascinating book, highly recommended!

Book Review: Diary Of An 80s Computer Geek

There are quite a number of books on the market these days about the emergence of home computing and the PC in the 1970’s and 80’s and the people that had a major influence on this development and shaped the industry. Little has been written so far from the point of view of the kids on the other side of the business model that dreamed about getting their first personal computer, what they’ve done with it apart from playing games and how it shaped their future lives. A wonderful exception is ‘Diary Of An 80s Computer Geek: A Decade of Micro Computers, Video Games and Cassette Tape’ by Steven Howlett (not with a ph!).

Written in 2014, Steven tells about his adventures and misadventures as a young teenager in the 1980’s, his first computer and subsequent computers, programming, impressing his friends, trying to sell the result, about clueless teachers and lots of other things over 90 pages in a very humorous and easy to read style. While I would have been a (C64) ‘Commie’, he was firmly entrenched on the Sinclair ZX ‘Speccy’ side of things, a school ground battle that was probably fought much harder in Britain than it was in my home country (were we only had proper school ground battles over computers in the Amiga vs. Atari age. But I digress…) I couldn’t put the (e)book down as the story had so many elements I could immediately identify with as it reminded me of my computing adventures in the 1980’s.

A great book, fully recommended and a wonderful story from the ‘other side of the fence’!