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My Reading of Computers.



September 2004.


The recent history of the world has seen the penetration of the computer into almost everyone's daily affairs. Recent times have witnessed the emergence of new companies, who produce new and wonderful products. We have seen the birth of brand new rules in economics and ideas about modern management. Indeed whole industries which never existed at all before, new markets, new ways to corner those markets and ultimately new ways in which to fail in those markets. Has anyone really tried to piece it all together, and ask how it all happened, or what could happen next?


Nicholas G. Carr's book, 'IT Doesn't Matter' has an unfortunate title, which is often misunderstood in reviews, but provides some excellent perspective on the recent past in computing. Whereas a book such as 'The New New Thing' by Michael Lewis tries at least to predict where the future might be headed. Indeed, one has to remember that in the late 1950s there wasn't many more than 100 computers in total sold in the United States. That in just a short fifty year period of history, so much has indeed occured. We are possibly still much too close to the recent emergence of computers to fully understand what has happened, or what could happen.


Nicholas Carr has one very viewpoint, that of a well educated and well respected Harvard Economics professor. The strength for me, in his book has been his attempt to try and piece it all together, rather than the actual conclusions that he manages to draw. A book which aught to be read in conjunction, with Nicholas Carr's book should be Michael Dell's book, Dell From Direct. As is the Big Shots series, book about 'The Sun Way', Sun Microsystems approach to 'The network is the computer'.


Early computing is also a story of revolves heavily around the investments in Research and Development over the years. Take for instance, the investment by Scott McNealy in the early development of Java technology. Or take Steve Job's generous sponsership of computer graphics whiz's in the book, 'The Second Coming of Steve Jobs'. Some very sad stories emerge too, for instance in 'Insanely Great', how Douglas C. Engelbart and his augmentation group might never have got the respect or resources they trully deserved.


In 'The New New Thing', Michael Lewis goes into detail, of Jim Clark's frustration having founded Silicon Graphics computer corporation, at being somewhat cut out of the real spoils, of what he viewed as his ideas and engineering concepts. The same disenchantment, of very brilliant people is evident in the Steve Jobs book, the Masters of Doom book and many others.


Pulitzer Prize winner, Michael A. Hiltzik's book, Dealers in Lightning covers the history of Parc Laboratories, considered to be one of the most amazing collection of huge brains in the one place at the one time ever. Another excellently entertaining author about technology, Steven Levy has quite a bit to say about Parc Labs, Douglas Englebart and other, in one of his books 'Insanely Great'.


While I am on the subject of R&D, I might as well mention 'Where wizards stay up Late', by Katie Hafner and Matthew Lyon. If you ever wondered what BNN meant, or was, or what it done, this book educates the reader exactly what BNN was about and of course, all the people who contributed to it. BNN were the winners of the ARPA tender bidding process to build the first 'coast to coast' computer network.


Tim Berners-Lee believed that no one entity should own or control the Internet. I must say, practically every book I have read so far about computers has gone to some trouble to define their own particular stance in relation to the Internet. Michael Dell has made some interesting comments in his book, as do Carmac and Romero in Masters of Doom. The Sun Way, Cuckoo's Egg, New New Thing all delve into the subject of the Internet in their own unique ways.


A resource, which should be studied very carefully for anyone interested in government organisations and their involvement in the early days of computing, should not miss reading 'Cuckoo's Egg' by Cliff Stoll. I also like Cliff Stoll's book too, because he didn't start out as a computer science graduate, he just sort of ended up working with computers by chance. He owned a little Apple II computer at home, and his job at work was to administer a mini-computer used by Scientists at the University. So Cliff Stoll really does stand at the cross-over point between two approaches to computing - that of the big central computer and the little desk one.


A book which should inform the reader about those early times, when computers were mainly government funded and University funded, is Hackers by Steven Levy. A account, which describes the Japanesse attempts to corner the market of future technology is provided by Howard Rheingold's book, Virtual Reality. By the way, a reading of Levy's 'Insanely Great' is recommended with Rheingold, as Levy is excellent at providing the background to characters like Vannevar Bush and his concept of memex - a precursor to the Internet and interfaces as we know them now.


Another useful source of information about Engineering and Research, is the book 'DEC Is Dead, Long Live DEC'. At one stage in computing history, before Intel and before Microsoft really gained the spotlight, it was all on DEC, founded by Ken Olsen.


Many would suggest that the birth of modern computing really happened, before Computers was considered a Science. These early university intellectuals, collectively refered to as the Hackers, put together a lot of what we now call the modern computer. These Hacker were of course, some of the few people who gained regular access to computers back in the day. ARPA funded a lot of the early work into computers, at Universities and so on. It took nearly until the 1980s until the whole industry of writing software finally took off in earnest. A useful history of this is provided in Martin Campbell Kelly in 'From Airline Reservations to Sonic the Hedgehog'.


John Carmac describes to the author of Masters of Doom, how difficult it was for a poor young man with almost no resources to get into computers 'back in the day'. Compared to now, when all one needs nowadays to become a computer programmer is an refurbished computer, a Linux CDROM and a broadband connection.


There is maybe a total world market for 5 computers, said Tom Watson in the early 20 century. In fact, IBM were one of the later adopters of computing, having had long experience with card punching accountancy machine, before that. IBM brought a lot of organisation genius with them, when they eventually did arrive in the world of computers. Their dominance probably even went unchecked, until the emergence of post war companies like Ken Olsen's DEC and Steve Job's Apple. '


A superb author, Kevin Maney, uncovers the early history of 'International Business Machines' and the man behind that early company, Tom Watson in his book, 'The Maverick and His Machine'. I would find this a great text about the emergence of corporations in the United States, like other books by Peter F. Drucker, Andrew S. Grove (Only the Paranoid Survive) and Michael Dell (Direct from Dell). A similar book, which describes the earliest adoption of computers by a large corporation in Great Britain, is 'A Computer called Leo' written by a beautiful author of books about science, Georgina Ferry.


I do love that Georgina Ferry book, and its excellent explanations of John von Neumann and other early computing wizards like Alan Turing. I greatly enjoyed the descriptions of the Eniac Computer, and early difficulties with making a computer at all. A book which provides better pictures, to go with the excellent written descriptions in Ferry's book is the Taschen Illustrated History of Computers by Wurster, Christian.


A lot of books describe the harsh reality of surviving in the computer industry - many of the books I have read, has brought me back down to earth with regard to business, and the real world. Many contrasting approaches exist towards survival in this very harsh environment. Compare the strategies adopted by Dell, Groves, McNealy, Watson, Olsen, Jobs, Gates, Clark, Carmac and many others. Only through reading through the texts can one really even try to ascertain, the difficulties that these people faced and how they achieved sometimes against very stiff odds.


Other books, manage to raise one's spirit however, and to feed one's imagination of what computers could potentially be used for. These are the books, that I myself reserve a special liking for. Perhaps I could be acccused of living up in the clouds with regard to computing, but this just happens to be the aspect that grabs my attention most of all. That is why I have reserved this section until last. The best book I have read all year is 'The Serendipity Machine' by one David Green. For anyone interested in how ultimate number crunching ability can be put to some productive use - this is the text one should start with in my opinion.


Its format is trully excellent, it takes you through a series of very focussed and specific essays on very different areas of highend computing problems. Problems like networks and networking behaviour, problems like data-mining, solving problems through means of trial and error by computers. This book opens up the discussion even wider, books like Mark Buchanan's Small Worlds, seems more interesting having read the Serendipity Machine. Also, a book I like very much now aswell, is Steven Johnson's book, Emergence.


What I really like about 'The Serendipity Machine', is that it can lead a dreamer like myself to so many other areas of physics and science, information and computerisation, with at least some explanation of what is really going on. I don't pretend for a second even, to be a computer scientist or physicist, but I am still just totally fascinated by it all!


But just in case you are a physicist, I will include a useful general text I came across in my reading, which I can only assume is now out of print. Wooley, Benjamin: Virtual Worlds: A Journey in Hype and Hyperreality, Cambridge, Mass.: Blackwell, 1992. Which was also published by Penguin, Wooley, Benjamin. Virtual Worlds. London: Penguin Books, 1993.


This book is great for the likes of my, because it makes some attempt to deal with the fabulous work of mathematians like Roger Penrose, and how computers are now helping to push mathematics beyond the envelope. So that I don't have to even open, or try to read Roger Penrose's book, Road to Reality. Sort of like Brad Pitt in the movie Seven, in reference to the play Hamlet, 'I didn't see that one'.


Gareth Ace.







Does IT Matter?: Information Technology and the Corrosion of Competitive Advantage

Nicholas G. Carr


Emergence: The Connected Lives of Ants, Brains, Cities and Software

Steven Johnson


Small World: Uncovering Nature's Hidden Networks

Mark Buchanan


The Serendipity Machine: A Voyage of Discovery Through the Unexpected World of Computers

David G. Green


Masters of Doom: How Two Guys Created an Empire and Transformed Pop Culture

David Kushner


Direct from Dell: Strategies that Revolutionized an Industry

Michael Dell and Catherine Fredman


Big Shots: Business the Sun Way: Secrets of a New Economy Megabrand

D. Stauffer


The Second Coming of Steve Jobs

Alan Deutschman


Insanely Great: The Life and Times of Macintosh, the Computer That Changed Everything

Steven Levy


The New New Thing : A Silicon Valley Story

Michael Lewis


Dealers of Lightning : Xerox PARC and the Dawn of the Computer Age

by Michael A. Hiltzik


Insanely Great: The Life and Times of Macintosh, the Computer That Changed Everything

by Steven Levy


Where Wizards Stay Up Late: The Origins Of The Internet

by Katie Hafner


Cuckoo's Egg: Tracking a Spy Through the Maze of Computer Espionage

by Clifford Stoll


Hackers: Heroes of the Computer Revolution

by Steven Levy


Weaving the Web: The Original Design and Ultimate Destiny of the World Wide Web

by Tim Berners-Lee


The Maverick and His Machine: Thomas Watson, Sr. and the Making of IBM

by Kevin Maney


A Computer Called LEO: Lyons Tea Shops and the World's First Office Computer

Georgina Ferry


The Computer. An Illustrated History

Wurster, Christian



by Howard Rheingold


DEC Is Dead, Long Live DEC: The Lasting Legacy of Digital Equipment Corporation

by Edgar H. Schein, Paul J. Kampas, Peter Delisi, Michael Sonduck


From Airline Reservations to Sonic the Hedgehog : A History of the Software Industry (History of Computing)

by Martin Campbell-Kelly


The Road to Reality: A Complete Guide to the Laws of the Universe

Roger Penrose

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I do.... I wonder.....! However, I am old enough to have witnessed great part of it.


Your analytical review is excellent. It took me back to the time in which I started.... Late 70's..... Altair, Texas Instrument TI99, Comodores Series.... 1981 IBM and Microsoft.


During that time I was a young employee at large healthcare company with the task of growing our international business. However, unlike my co-workers, I was not trained in business development. I was trained in physics, electronics and aviation.... In a business world dominated by Harvard MBA's. Quickly I realized there was no serious intention with international development. I was the underdog of the group....


Until early in 1981 the computers were just like a sophisticated game.... PacMan....! Soon there was VisiCalc, followed by Quatro, Paradox and DBase who made and applications to be used with IBM and Microsoft. Being in the international division of a large US based business meant that I had to fight for every single penny to be given to our operational budget. I was the underdog.... I remember trying to convince the IT Manager (those day the Computer Dept) to develop in the big IBM Main frame a database form more suitable for our international business. Our international customers had two last names and their addresses where longer. The US database was not suitable to track our international clients.


IT time slot for internationl absolutely not possible in those days.... The IT and CAD managers where even amazed that a joung employee would go directly to them with such a request. I was told that there where channels through which to place my request.


I appealed the desicion and went to the CEO of 3 billion dollar company to ask for little bit of time from the IT group. He smiled, like a father telling a young son why can he have a candy before dinner. No luck... our international business was less than 2% of the total revenues..... With courage and a determination to get my way.... I purchased with my own money an IBM 8088, VisiCalc and Paradox. A little bit later we adquired Quatro... Soon after that, we had a computerized database with all the entry lines needed for our small international group. The non-technical domestic business managers where impressed at all the number crunching this small computer was doing for our under funded and under staffed group. The charts where just gorgeous... That's the only thing that they care about. Two years later we were 18% of the total revenues....


Our company did technical products...... We had 4 mainframe Texas Instruments and Unix workstations dedicated for CAD. Big investment.... This early CAD stations were like kept in a room with a dedicated air conditioning system and in sound proof environment.... It was like the shrine of the business managers.... These CAD department was our future.... Our assistant in the cash generating machine.... Lots of employees.... just to manage the 4 CAD stations.... These CAD managers considered themselves close to the leading edge of the technical vanguard of those days. Once again, we could not convince the CAD guys for a small time slot for international proposals. We found a way around.... we got then, AutoCAD 1..... Same with our advertising people.... they would not budget for international multi-lingual brochures.... Well...... Photoshop..... took the turn on this ocassion.... followed by Ventura desktop publisher.


At the end, "Big Brother" started realizing it was easier to purchase a series of small computer than to deal with the madonas in charged of the big Computer Management and CAD departments... Pretty soon our international group was adopted as an example of how to become lean and fairly cost efficient. They took my two assitants to the domestic side and made them in charge of the implementation of 60 plus small computers that eventually almost replaced the IT main frames. I left the company in the mid 1980's. That model started the globalization of the company. Today it is a large conglomerate with over 50% revenues comming from abroad...


None of the above could have been possible, none of the activities by the members of this forum could have been possible..... if it was not for the people you listed on your essay... They are the true heroes of the computer fairy tale part of it.... Also responsible for the sad part of it....


The underlining of your essay is the main topic for me.... Mankind gave birth to the technology.... Now the technology is dictating behavioural trends in mankind....! Society has changed..... I have computers in the office, computers in the house, if I do a business presentation I use Power Point and a Laptop. Right now I am writing to you and my two small children are on two computers next to me playing with like a children CAD system.


Your article is very refreshing.... To see people interested in an introspective analysis with the aim of a forward vision.....!!! Very good.... very inspirational....







Your next article should be about the development of CAD and 3D Virtual Reality.....





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Great to hear from you Elliot, I have left many holes in my analysis I am sure, such as books like Steven Lohr's 'Go To', that whole software history I am not very well up on... part of my reason for putting this analysis up, is so that mature folks such as yourself can make corrections. I am talking with someone else at the moment, about publishing a finished draft before Christmas at a tech web site, just to act as some kind of guide to other 'Elliots' around the world, who might treat themselves to a nice read and reflection over the next holiday season, new year etc. From all the people I have spoken to so far, time seems to be a quite scarse commodity, for many of whom, might have actually lived this period in history and therefore actually 'get the most' from reading some of the available texts. So I trully appreciate all the time, you have taken, and anyone else who cares to respond.... I hope I can at least point you in the direction of a carefully planned future prospective reading list/enquiry into this history. Also, I know that guys like Greg and myself, while being passionate about technology don't always appreciate, the many great minds you have gone before us.






I am just passing through town at the moment, dropped into the web cafe for a mo, and I am forwarding your response to my work inbox.... thanx!

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Thanks... I like your article. It is very enticing for introspective analysis. For quite some time I have been thinking about what we are doing as a group. It is my humble opinion, that we are not focused on the big picture. We are more focused on the right render, on the right reflection and colors... on a perfect world.... according to the computer.


There is no problem in taking a path leading to perfectionism.... However, when that sense of perfectionism is not in tune with the rest of the world, then we could be drifting on a no-return trip.


The reason for my way of thinking is that most of our clients are Architectural firms and the real end users - owners of these instituions we are designing and furbishing. Our healthcare clients want to see how their buildings will look now and then. After all, a hospital will last in the community for a long while. However, their primary focus is healthcare giving and cost. They want too see the nice images of how their hospital will look like.... but in a way they do not care so much for a super perfect rendering. The owners and the architectural firms see it the same way..... cost versus effective, realistic and achieveable goals.


Recently, an architect in northen Florida told me that they view these nearly perfect images as condescending attitude.... he politely continued to express that they don't need so many explanations..... Wao.... That they too have imagination....


I like your article because it places in perspective the real path of how we got to this point.... and what it is that we are trying to achieve..... a beatifull image to make us feel good or a tool to assist everybody on the loop for reducing cost and improving the final product.


If we are trying to achieve beauty with our image then we should sell them as art.... However, the architects, contractors and owners may not be interested in art. They just want a nearly perfect design at a minimum cost.


I feel we should guide our efforts into the real world and not into a perfect rendering getting lost and isolated in outer space.


Keep up with the good work


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Don't worry, with the advent of things like Grid computing, which IBM, SUN and other vendors seem to be 100% behind, you might shortly see software license, for programmes that use Genetic Algorithms, which basically use a series of 'generations' of pieces of code, and just like in the Darwin idea, they eliminate the weaker results, and only the strongest going on to make up the new generation, etc, etc. Of course, the savage amount of computation required might be difficult to place on a desktop computer. Until computational muscle became something like a utility, as in the concept of grid computing, as described in Nicholas G. Carr's book, would things like Genetic Algorithm software become very viable to use, to design all kinds of stuff, from refrigerators to power plants.


The stick man, generations, shown here in Steven Johnson's article is a good example:




For an entire inventory of current 'GA' type softwares look here:




optiDesigner is a Windows software for the optimal design of water distribution systems using "Genetic Algorithms" (GA). The program uses EPANET (a hydraulic simulator distributed by the US EPA). optiDesigner will design the system pipes and find their minimal cost under a set of constraints like: Minimal and maximal pressures at networks nodes.Minimal and maximal velocities at networks pipes.Maximal sources flow.With optiDesigner you can find the most cost effective design, rehabilitation and expansion of your water distribution system


I rest my case! :-) But the thing really about all of these new artificial life simulator softwares, is that one approach to 'problem solving' seems to fit so many different applications. Contrast, the OptiDesigner product for doing water pipes, with that of another man's solution, to designing 'routers' which make the internet packets fly around much faster.


The interview with Eric Bonabeau:




At some level of description, two very different systems, such as an ant colony and a computer network, may exhibit similar behavior. The mathematical expressions we use to characterize one can also be used to characterize the other, although the variables and parameters in the equations have very different meanings.


Therefore, thanks to the level of abstraction that mathematical modeling provides, one can build conceptual bridges between systems that operate in very different environments at very different time and spatial scales under very different constraints. When the foraging choice behavior of ants was first put into equations, they were strikingly similar to equations describing other phenomena (symmetry breaking in physical and chemical systems) and the model was performing some kind of optimization.


We could then go back to the ants and see that they were indeed solving an optimization problem, a very simple one, but still they were optimizing between two possible pathways to a food source. They were doing that collectively, self-organizing to discover the best solution. Building such bridges between disciplines and systems is an art that requires both a broad culture that spans many disciplines and a deep understanding of the mathematical formalism used to build models. To summarize, the connection between, say, the behavior of ants and a communications network comes from the model used to describe them both.


This is what it says about Eric Bonabeau's company.



Agent-based Modeling, which describes the behaviors of the participants in a system and explores the interactions among them. Swarm Intelligence, which studies the systemic patterns that emerge from the individual interactions of agents in a particular environment. Evolutionary Computation, which uses the dynamics of natural evolution to develop solutions to a problem. Distributed Computing, which harnesses the power of a network of thousands of computers to rapidly perform many highly computationally intensive tasks.


has achieved a performance breakthrough with its evolutionary new genetic data mining technology. Genetic data mining is the automatic extraction of prediction and classification rules from databases using advanced genetic algorithm technology.

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  • 2 months later...

There are many references in your thread quote that I have never heard of, and more importantly, haven't had time to phantom. That being said, there is a much bigger picture here that we all have a hard time seeing -- due to our neural hardware limitations of course.



http://www.clearspeed.com/ and more importantly,



You see with Moore's Law doubling these things every 18 months it really is exponential. Please see:




Imaging 100 of these chained together... All dedicated to rendering.... 8^P



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