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Strong opinions, weakly held

Tag: history (page 1 of 3)

Paul Ford on the software canon

Here’s a question Paul Ford poses, and of course, attempts to answer in The Great Works of Software:

Is it possible to propose a software canon? To enumerate great works of software that are deeply influential—that changed the nature of the code that followed?

The list he comes up with is very solid. I feel like relational databases should also be represented — but it’s hard to pick one product. Should it be Oracle? It’s the first commercial relational database, and is still going strong. Maybe MySQL? They put relational databases in the hands of the masses.

It’s also a bit of a shame that no Web browsers make the list. Again, the problem is choosing one in particular. Browsers are the closest we’ve ever come to a universal client for online resources. We all know about viewing Web pages, but browsers also radically affected how businesses create software. Browsers ate the client-server paradigm, and then when the power of JavaScript increased, became a platform for writing client-server applications. I don’t know which one you pick — maybe you draw a line from Mosaic to Netscape to Mozilla to Firefox, but the browser changed everything.

It’s an interesting question to think about.

Great reads of 2013: 1491

I’m going through some of my favorite long reads from 2013 that I didn’t get around to blogging at the time I read them.

My first pick is actually not from 2013, it’s from 2002, but I happened to read it this year. Furthermore, it was later expanded into a book that was published in 2006. I plan to read it in 2014. The book and the article, written by Charles C. Mann, are both entitled 1491. Mann’s argument is revisionist history at its best, and I mean that as a compliment.

From both school and popular culture, I learned that the Americas were a sparsely populated pristine wilderness, largely unsullied by human impact. Mann sets out to demolish that narrative. His argument is that the evidence points to pre-Columbian America being far more densely populated than we’ve been taught, and the landscape having been heavily shaped by human habitation. The America encountered by later colonists had been depopulated thanks to pathogens carried by earlier European voyages, and was in transition due to the near-extinction of its keystone species–native Americans.

1491 is probably the most interesting thing I read in 2013.

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.

So if your answer started with “because in C…”, you’ve been repeating a good story you heard one time, without ever asking yourself if it’s true.

Mike Hoye digs into the history of zero-indexed arrays in Citation Needed. Fantastic walk through the history of computing, and a fun reminder of how comfortable it is to leave our beliefs unexamined.

iPhone predicted 100 years ago

Tyler Cowen posted a link to a great find: a 1910 essay by Robert Sloss in which he predicted that devices very similar to modern smart phones would one day exist. Impressive stuff.

Google Reader now generates feeds

Google Reader will now generate feeds for Web pages that do not already have them. You can plug in a URL and it will figure out a way to track changes to the page and notify you of them. From a technology standpoint, I’m fascinated. About 10 years ago, I worked for a company called Alerts.com that tried to do this sort of change detection. This was before feeds really took off, Morbus Iff’s AmphetaDesk was probably the leading news reader at that time.

The company built custom scrapers for any Web site we monitored, and our strategy was to seek out deals with content sites to scrape their sites and generate news alerts for them. Let me be blunt: this was a stupid strategy, and I knew it. RSS was starting to take off, and any company with a real CMS can keep track of the new stuff that’s being published without any help from a third party. Even so, we had a number of large content sites as customers for these keyword-based alerts.

I was hired to work on the consumer-facing site, and my idea was to do the sort of thing Google is launching now — automatically generate feeds and news alerts for any site, not just ones that were our partners. Unfortunately we didn’t really have the resources to pursue that strategy, and after a failed acquisition by LifeMinders, things steadily went downhill until everybody got laid off.

It’s funny to see Google doing now what I thought would have been a good idea a decade ago.

A blow to America’s self-image

George Washington was not a military genius, but his French allies were:

Later, Washington was painfully slow to grasp the significance of the war in the Southern states. For the most part, he committed troops to that theater only when Congress ordered him to do so. By then, it was too late to prevent the surrender of Charleston in May 1780 and the subsequent losses among American troops in the South. Washington also failed to see the potential of a campaign against the British in Virginia in 1780 and 1781, prompting Comte de Rochambeau, commander of the French Army in America, to write despairingly that the American general “did not conceive the affair of the south to be such urgency.” Indeed, Rochambeau, who took action without Washington’s knowledge, conceived the Virginia campaign that resulted in the war’s decisive encounter, the siege of Yorktown in the autumn of 1781.

Frankly I like the version where George Washington was a civilian soldier who did the best he could against his habitually warlike enemies better, anyway. (Via Kottke.)

Blogs in 1998

tawawa.org has done some research into early blogs, making the argument that attributing the sources for links was the spark that ignited the blogging phenomenon:

The blogosphere arose on 24 April 1998. On that day Steve Bogart made the announcement that he was adopting Jorn Barger’s recent practice of attributing the source of the links he was posting to his weblog. Barger’s innovation of crediting the origin of his outbound pointers, adopted by Bogart first and by many others afterwards, infused an earlier, mostly dormant network with a dynamic it had previously lacked, turning the aspiration of a self-aware social medium into the reality of such a medium.

I’m very glad all of the old blog content is archived so that this sort of analysis can be performed. Both Jorn and Steve are still at it, on blogs and on Twitter.

Links for August 26

  • Nefarious idea of the day: requiring users to view and regurgitate an ad to prove that they’re human. (Microsoft has applied for a patent on this approach.)
  • Frank Bruni’s final column as the New York Times restaurant critic. I loved his advice for navigating a menu, which ends with, “Then scratch off anything that mentions truffle oil. Choose among the remaining dishes.”
  • By way of the Footnotes of Mad Men, a newsreel from the 1964 World’s Fair. Worth watching for the explanation of computers alone.
  • Andrew Sullivan on the American way of torture. I’m just going to keep linking to this stuff until I stop encountering people who believe that the way we have treated detainees does not constitute torture.
  • Hypocrisy watch: we send Bill Clinton to North Korea to retrieve US journalists who have been unjustly imprisoned, and we also imprison Iraqi journalists without charging them with any crimes.
  • Today’s compromise is tomorrow’s landmark legislation. Let’s pass a health care reform bill.
  • Ted Kennedy was the first member of Congress with an official Web site.

What people were cooking in 1922

I’ve seen several links today to The Stag Cook Book, published in 1922 with the subtitle “Written for Men by Men.” I’m pretty sure it’s the greatest thing I’ve ever read.

The book’s concept is simple — famous people of the time were asked to supply recipes and short essays. It has a recipe for waffles from Warren G. Harding, Houdini’s deviled eggs, and Charlie Chaplin’s steak and kidney pie. Rube Goldberg supplied a funny article about hash. Montague Glass provides a recipe for bouillabaisse that’s a timeless piece of food writing. Frank Ward O’Malley’s article on Rum-Tum-Tiddy captures its period better than an entire season of Mad Men.

There’s something fascinating on every page. How differently did people eat in 1922 than they do today? A quick trip through the book provides the answer. S. S. McLure’s instructions for cooking an omelette stand the test of time. Douglas Fairbanks’ bread tart will not be made in any kitchen we’re likely to visit.

This book illustrates why long copyright terms are such a poor idea. This book is out of print, and even if it weren’t, nobody would buy it. But at the same time, it’s a fascinating historical artifact and I’m ecstatic that it’s available online. You should be, too.

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