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Recommended Readings

One of the really terrible advances in software technology is due to Microsoft. No, not Windows (which I make my living at) but compiler technology. Years ago, when compilers were much slower and machines were even worse, I could be guaranteed a good ten to twenty minutes uninterrupted from the time I started a compilation until the program was ready for test. During that time I would read. I'm a compulsive reader (remember the scene in Heinlein's Glory Road where Our Hero can't get to sleep unless he reads? That's me). I carry a book in the car, a book in my coat pocket (during the cool/cold seasons), and have books nearly everywhere within arm's reach. But these days, the time interval to complete a compilation and link is in seconds, often less than 10. Hardly enough time to reach for a book. So I don't get as much reading done as I used to.

I particularly enjoy history of technology. There are some really great books, and a few important but tedious ones. I also read science fiction, and, of course, computer books. I also read a lot in the history of diseases, because the reality is as fascinating as the best science-fiction stories, and has the additional feature that It Already Happened (or worse still, Might Happen Again). This page lists an assortment of books I have found interesting. I exclude here the books I've been involved with.

 

110x40-w-IAW-logo.gif (1831 bytes)  The Joseph M. Newcomer Co. is an amazon.com Associate.

 

History of Technology

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Tom Standage, The Victorian Internet : The Remarkable Story of the Telegraph and the Nineteenth Century's On-Line Pioneers. So you think the Internet is new? The basic principles were developed between 1830 and 1870, including store-and-forward message passing, push technology, encryption (including anti-encryption legislation!), divergent standards (ASCII/EBCDIC is only the most recent aberration!), and yes, even crackers and those who exploited the technology fraudulently. A must-have for anyone who is technology history buff.
amzn-buy.gif (3051 bytes) James Burke, Connections. Unless you've been living in a cave, or without television, you know James Burke's great program, Connections. This book is a delightful romp through the history of technology, showing that no technology can exist in a vacuum, and the seemingly least important piece of knowledge can have an incredible impact when combined with other, perhaps equally irrelevant, pieces of information.
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Hardback edition, $22.00

Michael Riordan, Lillian Hoddeson, Crystal Fire. Yes, there are really people out there who believe that the computer chip is a gift of an advanced alien race because "we" could not conceive to anything like it. The modern computer chip is a mere evolution of the point-contact transistor. And that is the evolution of a lot of hard work by a lot of pioneers. This is a great story of the history of the development of the transistor. 

Everyone who is interested in where computers came from should read this story.

amzn-buy.gif (3051 bytes)Paperback edition, $12.00
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Hardback edition, $18.20.


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Audio casette, $20.00.

Michael A. Hiltzik, Dealers of Lightning. If you don't read this book about the creation of the first personal computer, you're missing one of the great documentaries of our profession. I'm biased, of course; many of the personalities in this book are friends of mine. Jim Mitchell, Ed McCreight, and I were part of a team doing early interactive languages at CMU back in 1967-1969. Chuck Geschke was one of the members of the BLISS language group that was creating an optimizing compiler, of which I was the first user outside the implementation group. I knew Alan Kay and many of the others through them. This is a saga of triumph and ultimate failure of a path in history, but which created Microsoft, Apple, Adobe, the entire laser printer industry, and developed most of the key ideas which we now take for granted, including overlapping windows, WYSIWYG editing, and laptop computers.

Although slightly marred by a few instances of poor fact-checking (the PDP-11 is said to be the instruction-set-compatible successor to the PDP-10 for example), it is a page-turner of the best sort; I read it in two sittings, cover-to-cover. It is a successor to the smaller, less comprehensive Fumbling the Future: How Xerox invented, then ignored, the first personal computer.

It is available in hardback ($18.20), paperback, and even an abridged audio casette edition.

amzn-buy.gif (3051 bytes) Douglas K. Smith and Robert C. Alexander. Fumbling the Future: How Xerox Invented, Then Ignored, the First Personal Computer. This was the first and original sad tale of technological mismanagement, or why, as a computer company, Xerox was a good copier company. It is not as thorough, and is a bit more biased (against Xerox) than Dealers of Lightning, but it is interesting to see how the perspective changed over the decade or so between the two books (the book is listed as copyright 1999, but the first edition was sometime in the late 1980s). If you are compulsive and want to collect everything, get this. If you just want to read about the PARC disaster, just get Dealers of Lightning.
 
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amzn-buy.gif (3051 bytes) John Brunner, Shockwave Rider. Before the Internet (when the ArpaNet itself was embryonic--we had been using email only a very small number of years when Brunner started writing this book, which was published in 1975), before Robert Tappan Morris, and before "hackers", there was John Brunner. Every once in a while, a SF writer hits the future nearly dead-on. A must for any serious computer person. (Yes, I know it is science fiction, but it is also history of technology!)
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amzn-buy.gif (3051 bytes) Eric S. Raymond, The New Hacker's Dictionary (3rd edition). If you're a computer professional, you must have this book. It is not only a funny book, but it explains a lot of the terms you hear occasionally without explanation because they come from another computer culture than your own. The jargon of CMU, MIT, Stanford, IBM, and Great Britain computer people, and lots of others, appears here. I have a certain interest in this book since I was one of the major contributors (no, I don't get a penny, so this isn't a plug for me). Check out the definition of "bug". The story is about "your editor discovered" that the original Grace Murray Hopper bug was not, as an early draft suggested, at the Smithsonian, but as a consequence of the research now is. The way he discovered it was that I knew it wasn't, and tracked it down at NSWC, so I am responsible for the Smithsonian having the most famous computer bug in history, an accomplishment I feel quite proud of. For the truly serious geek,  it is also available in hardcover.

Plagues, Epidemics, and similar problems

amzn-buy.gif (3051 bytes) Laurie Garrett, The Coming Plague : Newly Emerging Diseases in a World Out of Balance. We live in a precarious age: while antibiotics have conditioned us to think that all diseases are curable, we know now that they are not. No zone of pestilence is more than about 16 hours from anywhere else in the world. Even such apparently beneficial techniques such as baboon heart transplants have high risks. This book explores some of the issues that I, for one, hope we never have to deal with. But they make you stop and think.
amzn-buy.gif (3051 bytes) Richard Preston, The Hot Zone. Ebola in the United States? Yes! We missed a disaster by only the greatest of good fortune. Here is the story of Ebola and its related viruses, such as Marburg. There was an accident in the labs in Reston, Virginia. The only thing that saved the country from a serious disaster was the strain of Ebola, known now as Ebola Reston, was apparently not virulent in humans.
Richard Preston, The Cobra Event. This is an odd book. The writing is actually sort of poor, but the topic is fascinating, in the same way that books about nuclear war are fascinating. In spite of the rather amateurish writing, this is a book I read in nearly one sitting. I could have done without some of the more clinical details of how an autopsy is performed, but as a study of technology run amok it is a fine example of classic "hard" science fiction--even if it isn't billed as such. I hope he keeps writing; if he masters his writing ability as well has he has mastered the science he can be a truly great writer of techno-thrillers.

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hardbound edition

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amzn-buy.gif (3051 bytes) Richard Preston, The Demon in the Freezer: A True Story. Preston may not be a "story writer" in the sense of a novel (see The Cobra Event), but as someone who documents true stories, he is unequalled. Remember the anthrax scare of 2001? And the FBI's analysis of the fact that it was the work of some lone rogue scientist working in his (presumably his) basement? This documentation dispels that myth--and does not do justice to the nut cases who are persecuting a legitimate scientist because he happened to once be involved in bioweapon research (he is now unemployable, and entirely due to one unfounded and easily disproved rumor). Read all about it. And don't believe this was the work of a lone individual. As this book explains, there is no question this was weapons-grade anthrax! Be prepared for a long day: this is a real page-turner.
amzn-buy.gif (3051 bytes) Hans Zinsser, Rats, Lice, and History:.... The entire title is very long, and even amazon.com truncates it. This is a reproduction of a book printed in the 1930s (with some very odd typography--strange letter spacings all over the place), but is a fascinating history of the effect of plagues and disease on our modern world, by how the world in the past was changed. More battles were lost to dysentery, cholera, and malaria than to military might.
amzn-buy.gif (3051 bytes) Ken Alibek, Biohazard. As the cover promises, learn about the Russian bioweapons program from the man who ran it. And learn about how poorly the security on the products of this program is. Be afraid. Be very afraid. Ken Alibek (the Anglicization of his real name) defected to the United States after spending most of his life creating bioweapons. The insider view of what was really happening in violation of all international treaties.
amzn-buy.gif (3051 bytes) Jonathan B. Tucker, Scourge: The Once and Future Threat of Smallpox. Smallpox was once one of the most feared diseases in the world. It has been eradicated (except for those samples maintained in freezers all over the world). Smallpox killed three times as many people as wars during the last century. And it may yet again. 

Science Fiction

amzn-buy.gif (3051 bytes) John Brunner, Shockwave Rider. Before the Internet (when the ArpaNet itself was embryonic--we had been using email only a very small number of years when Brunner started writing this book, which was published in 1975), before Robert Tappan Morris, and before "hackers", there was John Brunner. Every once in a while, a SF writer hits the future nearly dead-on. A must for any serious computer person.

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Neal Stephenson, Snow Crash. One of the genuinely funniest books I've read in SF in a long time, this is also a reasonably accurate portrayal of a virtual reality universe. A thoroughly enjoyable story. Almost as amusing as one of his other books, Zodiac, which left me laughing out loud in the airplane where I was reading it. You know you're on a streak when you have two books by the same author that rank among the funniest you've ever read; reading both in the same year is a bonus.

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Neal Stephenson, Zodiac. This is the funniest science fiction book I've read in many years. It is probably a bad book to read on an airplane (see my review above).  Not even Terry Pratchett can match Stephenson for giggles-per-book, to give you a calibration.
amzn-buy.gif (3051 bytes) Algis Budrys, Michaelmas. Alas, this classic is out of print, although amazon.com does support ordering out-of-print books. I found the key plot twist a bit weak, but for computer people and conspiracy buffs this is a must-read. Shockwave Rider came out in 1975, this book came out in 1977. Who really controls the world? Find out...
amzn-buy.gif (3051 bytes) Neal Stephenson, Cryptonomicon. A long, occasionally tedious, book which wraps in and around encryption technology. Also it is good science fiction. But its portrayal of the Canonical Computer Geek (or J. Random Hacker, as defined in The New Hacker's Dictionary) is hysterical, and like most of Stephenson's work that I've read, his Way With Words is a marvel. Again, it has been many years since I've read science fiction that makes me laugh out loud, even on airplanes. Stephenson, Douglas Adams, and Terry Pratchett are the only recent writers who have managed that. This is, in spite of the fact that it is probably too long, is still a great read, and should be read by any SF enthusiast who is into computers (or computer enthusiast who is into SF).

Other Books

amzn-buy.gif (3051 bytes) Amy Lowenstein, For Grandmas Who Do Windows

OK, so it isn't a programming book. But it is good, especially for its intended audience. Some of us even have mothers or grandmothers who are trying to learn the computer (for example, I got a call from my 80-year-old mother who was concerned that the computer had done something illegal...and it even said it did!)

I worked with Amy over 20 years ago, when she was producing a useful guide on Mideast literature. She used my program, one of the earliest publish-from-database programs around, to create the book, including its various indices and cross-references. Diana Bajek was her primary developer, and I added a lot of features to the program to support the Mideast literature project. It was neat to see her name come around again in an article in our local paper, telling about this book. So I made contact with her and we had a pleasant chat. At 75, she knows a great deal more about electronic documentation than most of the creators of said documentation.

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Copyright 1998-2003 The Joseph M. Newcomer Co.
Last modified: March 11, 2004