Sunday, August 12, 2007

The Big Over Easy + Hackers

A couple of book reviews ...

1. "The Big Over Easy" by Jasper Fforde

After four books in the "Thursday Next" series, Jasper Fforde changed
tack and wrote a couple of books in a series of "Nursery Crimes".  The
first is about the investigation of the death of Humperdinck Jehoshaphat
Aloysius Stuyvesant van Dumpty, otherwise known as Humpty Dumpty.

As in the the "Thursday Next" series, real life and literary characters
mix freely.  But this time the "real world" is much more like the
world we live in, so for example computers exist and the UK still is a
United Kingdom.  And the characters are from popular nursery rhymes.

Detective Inspector Jack Spratt of the Nursery Crimes Division leads
the investigation, with new sidekick Mary Mary (of Quite Contrary fame).
Suspects include Giorgio Porgia, Randolph Spongg, Lola Vavoom, his wife
and the many mistresses that Humpty had accumulated.

If you found that previous paragraph too twee, then this book is
probably not for you.  To be honest, I found it a bit lightweight and
not as funny or as inventive as the "Thursday Next" series.

2. "Hackers: Heroes of the Computer Revolution" by Steven Levy

I've been meaning to read this book for a while now, but couldn't get
my hands on it.  It was written over twenty years ago, and I managed to
find a copy in the Barr Smith Library.

The author's goal is to explore the "Hacker Ethic":
Note that we're not talking about hackers in the sense of breaking into
other people's computer systems.  Unfortunately the media has hijacked
the term, which originally referred to someone who "follows a spirit
of playful cleverness and loves programming":

Three generations of hackers are chronicled in the book.  The first
generation of hackers were students and hangers-on at university
computer labs (in particular MIT and Stanford) in the 1950s and 1960s.
These were the days of mainframes and time-share systems.  Artificial
Intelligence was the dream.  Sharing code freely was a given, fore-
shadowing the modern Open Source movement.

The second generation of hackers were the "hardware hackers", who built
their own computers following the development of transistors and silicon
chips.  Many were members of the Homebrew Computer Club in California
during the 1970s.  For example, a well-known member was Steve Wozniak
who designed the Apple I and II.  Before that there was the Altair,
and several lesser-known systems vying with Apple.  IBM was still years
away from introducing the PC.  But Bill Gates was already cutting his
teeth, writing an early version of BASIC for the Altair.

The third generation of hackers looks at the games being developed for
"home computers" in the 1980s: Pac Man, Adventure, Space Invaders, Zork,
and Loderunner to name a few.  If you grew up during that time you would
remember publishers like Broderbund, Sierra On-Line, Sirius and Infocom.
Systems included Atari Home Computers (not the consoles), Commodore,
TRS-80, and Apple.  Only Apple would survive to the present day.

Overall, a fascinating book about important moments in the history of
computers.  Some of the historical and technical aspects were overly
simplistic, but that's just me nitpicking.  A sequel or update would be
good, including discussions of the Microsoft monopoly, the Internet,
the modern Open Source movement, and the metamorphosis of computers into
other devices such as PDAs, mobile phones, iPods, TiVos etc.