The Soul of a New Machine
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The Soul of a New Machine

I’ve recently read two books about computing history, and I intend to write about them both. The first is Tracy Kidder’s The Soul of a New Machine. Kidder was invited by Tom West of Data General to document the creation of a new computer–a 32 bit supermini designed to compete with the formidable VAX 11/780 from DEC.

The book covers the era when building a new computer meant building a new computer from the ground up. The idea of building a computer from off-the-shelf components had not yet arrived, companies built everything from scratch, and wrote all of the code for the new system, all the way down to the metal. Even for highly integrated, brand new systems like the iPhone, many more components sourced from third parties were used than companies like Data General, DEC, and IBM used back then. The original iPhone was built using an existing CPU, and an existing operating system. All of the hardware and nearly all of the software for the Data General system was produced specifically for that system. It is likely that no engineers work completely original systems any more, the costs are too high. It’s hard to read about that kind of work and not feel both nostalgic and intimidated.

At the same time, the mechanics of how projects are run feel familiar, especially if you’ve ever worked on a big project that started with an unrealistic deadline. In many ways, the book documents the computer industry at its worst, even as it cements the mythology of heroic engineering feats that seem romantic from a distance but are usually awful in the moment.

Kidder talks about two phenomena that really resonated with me. The first is the idea of the managers getting people to “sign up” – for the project and for specific tasks. The idea is that “signing up” meant showing a willingness to sacrifice whatever was necessary to complete the task, and to work impossibly hard on the project in general. The managers gauged job candidates on their likelihood of signing up, and turned down those they didn’t believe would. Having had a relatively long career in the computer industry, I’ve seen signing up from both sides. On one hand, as an engineer, you crave a project worthy of signing up for. Signing up only happens when you feel like you’re doing work of significance, that you’re experiencing an opportunity that surpasses any you thought you’d ever be offered.

By the same token, as a manager, you want to work on projects that you would be willing to ask people to sign up for, and you want to hire people who you feel like you can motivate to sign up. Managers must also know that intentionally exploiting people’s willingness to overcommit is almost certainly evil. One of the key attributes of a good manager is a commitment to do what’s in the best interests of the members of the team, whether they want you to or not.

Kidder also lays out the nominal and actual rewards of engineering work. The members of the Eagle team (that was the code name for the computer they were building) were ostensibly motivated by the pinball rule – if they won, their reward was getting to play again. The members of the team toiled in anonymity, even within Data General, and weren’t going to get big bonuses no matter how well the project did. In theory, they did what they did in hopes of getting the opportunity to work on even bigger and better projects in the future. In reality, they did it because they were a team, and because they were committed to their craft. This is a set of values deeply understood by anyone who takes pleasure in building things. The building of new things is both the job and the reward. If you do well, you may get to build bigger things. More importantly, though, at the end, you brought forth order from chaos. What else does a person need?

All great books on history both illuminate the past and highlight the universal, and Kidder’s book meets that standard. I found it to be an incredible page turner. I don’t want to spoil the story, so I’ll say no more. As soon as I finished the book, I wanted to get out my computer and start writing some code.

The other book I just finished is Andrew Hodges’ Alan Turing: The Enigma, about which I have so many thoughts that I’m finding them difficult to organize. I’ll write more about it later.

Audio books as an art form
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Audio books as an art form

I confess that I’ve not listened to an audio book since I listened to an album-length version of The Hobbit that we had when I was a little kid. Roger Ebert makes me think I’ve been missing out. This is quite an endorsement:

I’ve been a lifelong reader. My love for physical books is old and deep. I also love audiobooks, and have listened to probably 300 of them. Sometimes they stay with me better than the printed ones. I avoid abridgments in most cases, and listened to Simon Callow read all 12 novels in Anthony Powell’s A Dance to the Music of Time twice. Every word. It became part of my experience. Now I’m re-reading it in print, and I can hear the voices.

I tried to read Patrick Suskind’s Perfume and never really got into it. Then I listened to Sean Barrett reading it, and it was so enthralling that if it was playing in the car I’d leave the engine idling for half an hour in the alley while an chapter finished. I started James Joyce’s Ulysses several times and always bogged down. After I heard it performed by Jim Norton and Marcella Riordan, I got it. It’s all voices. Hearing them from readers who knew such people, I could finally hear them in my mind.

The Diary of Samuel Pepys is so long I certainly would never have read it, although I own two hardbound editions. I get slowed down by the period spelling and language use, and the unfamiliar expressions. I listened to Kenneth Branagh’s performance, and it was like being confided in by a naughty, delightful friend. Pepys is human, flawed, sinful, determined to improve. A gossip. A statesman. A rogue. He joins the crowd in my mind.

That makes me want to seek out some audio books.

Will a library card lead me to read more?
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Will a library card lead me to read more?

Like many people who spend too much time online, read fewer books than I’d like. It’s not that I don’t read as many words as I once did. I read blog posts in Google Reader, updates on Twitter, message board posts in many places, email, and long articles in Instapaper. And my temptation is often to play a computer game, watch a TV show, or catch up on various online reading when I have leisure time. While I enjoy all that stuff, it’s just not the same as diving into an interesting nonfiction book or a gripping novel.

For years I’ve been trying to figure out how to get my incentives to align with my abstract desires and start reading more books. My new theory is that I’m more likely to read books if I check them out from the library. I am a deadline driven person, and when you check books out of the library they come with a deadline. You have to give them back whether you read them or not. The other difference is that buying a book is a commitment. You spend money on it, and so it’s worth looking into carefully to make sure you’re buying something that’s really good. Books are sacred. On the other hand, if you check out a book from the library and it’s not your cup of tea, you put it down and drop it off on the way home from work the next day. No pressure.

So today I went to the library and got a library card and checked out Rosecrans Baldwin’s novel from last year, You Lost Me There. I knew his name from The Morning News and I have enjoyed his commentary on Layer Tennis matches so I picked up his book on a whim and now I have until April 25 to read it. We’ll see how it turns out — first I have to finish reading this issue of National Geographic from last September.

Judging bloggers by their books
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Judging bloggers by their books

I was entertained by the meme that spread through the economics blogosphere a few weeks ago, in which the bloggers listed the books that influenced them the most. The main take away for me is that when it comes to reading, I swim at the shallow end of the pool. Most of the books on their lists that I have read I have forgotten almost entirely. Maybe reading blogs by people who read and really thought about these great books will make me a little smarter. Anyway, Adam Bramwell goes through the various lists and chooses winners. Entertaining.

Defining the agency model
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Defining the agency model

Most of the posts about the throw down between Macmillan and Amazon have talked about the “agency model,” as opposed to the model that Amazon prefers for the Kindle. Teresa Nielsen Hayden explains how the model works:

At the heart of the model is the proposition that ebooks aren’t essentially different from hardcopy books. Ebooks are just another repro technology. Furthermore, online ebook sellers like Amazon aren’t publishers; they’re distributors or booksellers.*

The difference between the agency model and Amazon’s plan for world domination is that Amazon wants to license the ebooks in its Kindle program, control their content, and set their prices. That is: it wants to be the publisher, not a distributor or seller. This might be doable if Amazon were out there negotiating to buy rights at market prices. It isn’t. Amazon expects to have the rights just handed over, as though it were doing the conventional publishers a favor.

What Amazon and Macmillan are fighting about
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What Amazon and Macmillan are fighting about

Author Charlie Stross explains the business reasons why Amazon pulled all Macmillan books from their online store last week. It’s the best overview of the dispute and why readers should care about it that I’ve seen.

Also check out this post by Jim Henley, in which he links to a bunch of reactions and runs some of the numbers in the dispute, and explains in concise terms exactly what’s at stake:

There are $7-8 in incremental costs coming off of every hardcover book as we move from print to bits, with some small new incremental costs for ebook production. So call it $7 a book.

One way or another, that $7 is going to be split among authors, publishers, retailers and customers. The question is, who gets how much?

Update: Macmillan wins, for now.