Journal tags: computing



Five books

Quite a few people have been linking to this list on The Verge of what they consider the greatest tech books of all time.

To be clear, this is a fairly narrow definition of technology. It’s really a list of books about the history of computing. But there’s some great stuff in there.

I’ve been thinking the books about computing and technology that I’ve managed to get around to reading, and which ones made an impact on me. Some of these made it on The Verge’s list too, which is nice to see.

Broad Band by Clare L. Evans

I was blown away by the writing and the stories uncovered in “the untold story of the women who made the internet.” Here’s what I wrote when I read the book:

This book is pretty much the perfect mix. The topic is completely compelling—a history of women in computing. The stories are rivetting—even when I thought I knew the history, this showed me how little I knew. And the voice of the book is pure poetry.

It’s not often that I read a book that I recommend wholeheartedly to everyone. I prefer to tailor my recommendations to individual situations. But in the case of Broad Band, I honesty think that anyone would enjoy it.

Uncanny Valley by Anna Wiener

I read this one in 2020, not too long after it came out. In my end of year round-up, I described it like this:

A terrific memoir. It’s open and honest, and just snarky enough when it needs to be.

Close to the Machine by Ellen Ullman

I read this in 2018, many years after it first came out. Here’s how it came across to me:

Lots of ’90s feels in this memoir. A lot of this still resonates today. It’s kind of fascinating to read it now with the knowledge of how this whole internet thing would end up going.

Abolish Silicon Valley by Wendy Liu

This book is mostly excellent. But as I wrote when I got my hands on an advance copy, the juxtaposition of memoir and manifesto didn’t work for me:

Abolish Silicon Valley is 80% memoir and 20% manifesto. I worry that the marketing isn’t making that clear. It would be a shame if this great book didn’t find its audience.

The Victorian Internet by Tom Standage

Okay, this isn’t technically about computing, it’s about the telegraph. But it’s got the word “internet” in the title, and it’s a terrific read. Here’s what I wrote when I put it in Matt’s book-vending machine:

A book about the history of telegraphy might not sound like the most riveting read, but The Victorian Internet is both fascinating and entertaining. Techno-utopianism, moral panic, entirely new ways of working, and a world that has been utterly transformed: the parallels between the telegraph and the internet are laid bare. In fact, this book made me realise that while the internet has been a great accelerator, the telegraph was one of the few instances where a technology could truly be described as “disruptive.”

When Jason linked to the list of books on The Verge he said:

I’m baffled that Tracy Kidder’s amazing The Soul of a New Machine didn’t make the top 5 or even 10.

I’m more surprised that this book is held in such high esteem. It has not aged well. I read it in 2019 and had this to say:

This is a well-regarded book amongst people whose opinion I value. It’s also a Pulitzer prize winner. Strange, then, that I found it so unengaging. The prose is certainly written with gusto, but it all seems so very superficial to me. No matter how you dress it up, it’s a chronicle of a bunch of guys—and oh, boy, are they guys—making a commercial computer. Testosterone and solder—not my cup of tea.


Picture someone tediously going through a spreadsheet that someone else has filled in by hand and finding yet another error.

“I wish to God these calculations had been executed by steam!” they cry.

The year was 1821 and technically the spreadsheet was a book of logarithmic tables. The frustrated cry came from Charles Babbage, who channeled his frustration into a scheme to create the world’s first computer.

His difference engine didn’t work out. Neither did his analytical engine. He’d spend his later years taking his frustrations out on street musicians, which—as a former busker myself—earns him a hairy eyeball from me.

But we’ve all been there, right? Some tedious task that feels soul-destroying in its monotony. Surely this is exactly what machines should be doing?

I have a hunch that this is where machine learning and large language models might turn out to be most useful. Not in creating breathtaking works of creativity, but in menial tasks that nobody enjoys.

Someone was telling me earlier today about how they took a bunch of haphazard notes in a client meeting. When the meeting was done, they needed to organise those notes into a coherent summary. Boring! But ChatGPT handled it just fine.

I don’t think that use-case is going to appear on the cover of Wired magazine anytime soon but it might be a truer glimpse of the future than any of the breathless claims being eagerly bandied about in Silicon Valley.

You know the way we no longer remember phone numbers, because, well, why would we now that we have machines to remember them for us? I’d be quite happy if machines did that for the annoying little repetitive tasks that nobody enjoys.

I’ll give you an example based on my own experience.

Regular expressions are my kryptonite. I’m rubbish at them. Any time I have to figure one out, the knowledge seeps out of my brain before long. I think that’s because I kind of resent having to internalise that knowledge. It doesn’t feel like something a human should have to know. “I wish to God these regular expressions had been calculated by steam!”

Now I can get a chatbot with a large language model to write the regular expression for me. I still need to describe what I want, so I need to write the instructions clearly. But all the gobbledygook that I’m writing for a machine now gets written by a machine. That seems fair.

Mind you, I wouldn’t blindly trust the output. I’d take that regular expression and run it through a chatbot, maybe a different chatbot running on a different large language model. “Explain what this regular expression does,” would be my prompt. If my input into the first chatbot matches the output of the second, I’d have some confidence in using the regular expression.

A friend of mine told me about using a large language model to help write SQL statements. He described his database structure to the chatbot, and then described what he wanted to select.

Again, I wouldn’t use that output without checking it first. But again, I might use another chatbot to do that checking. “Explain what this SQL statement does.”

Playing chatbots off against each other like this is kinda how machine learning works under the hood: generative adverserial networks.

Of course, the task of having to validate the output of a chatbot by checking it with another chatbot could get quite tedious. “I wish to God these large language model outputs had been validated by steam!”

Sounds like a job for machines.

Broad Band

I like to alternate between reading fiction and non-fiction. The fiction is often of the science variety. Actually, so is the non-fiction.

There was a non-fiction book I had queued up for a while and I finally got around to reading. Broad Band by Claire L. Evans. Now I’m kicking myself that I didn’t read it earlier. I think I might’ve been remembering how I found Mar Hicks’s Programmed Inequality to be a bit of a slog—a fascinating topic, but written in a fairly academic style. Broad Band covers some similar ground, but wow, is the writing style in a class of its own!

This book is pretty much the perfect mix. The topic is completely compelling—a history of women in computing. The stories are rivetting—even when I thought I knew the history, this showed me how little I knew. And the voice of the book is pure poetry.

It’s not often that I read a book that I recommend wholeheartedly to everyone. I prefer to tailor my recommendations to individual situations. But in the case of Broad Band, I honesty think that anyone would enjoy it.

I absolutely loved it. So did Cory Doctorow:

Because she is a brilliant and lyrical writer she brings these women to life, turns them into fully formed characters, makes you see and feel their life stories, frustrations and triumphs.

Even the most celebrated women of tech history – Ada Lovelace, Grace Hopper – leap off the page as people, not merely historical personages or pioneers. Again, these are stories I thought I knew, and realized I didn’t.

Yes! That!

Read it for yourself and see what you think.

A curl in every port

A few years back, Zach Bloom wrote The History of the URL: Path, Fragment, Query, and Auth. He recently expanded on it and republished it on the Cloudflare blog as The History of the URL. It’s well worth the time to read the whole thing. It’s packed full of fascinating tidbits.

In the section on ports, Zach says:

The timeline of Gopher and HTTP can be evidenced by their default port numbers. Gopher is 70, HTTP 80. The HTTP port was assigned (likely by Jon Postel at the IANA) at the request of Tim Berners-Lee sometime between 1990 and 1992.

Ooh, I can give you an exact date! It was January 24th, 1992. I know this because of the hack week in CERN last year to recreate the first ever web browser.

Kimberly was spelunking down the original source code, when she came across this line in the HTUtils.h file:

#define TCP_PORT 80 /* Allocated to http by Jon Postel/ISI 24-Jan-92 */

We showed this to Jean-François Groff, who worked on the original web technologies like libwww, the forerunner to libcurl. He remembers that day. It felt like they had “made it”, receiving the official blessing of Jon Postel (in the same RFC, incidentally, that gave port 70 to Gopher).

Then he told us something interesting about the next line of code:

#define OLD_TCP_PORT 2784 /* Try the old one if no answer on 80 */

Port 2784? That seems like an odd choice. Most of us would choose something easy to remember.

Well, it turns out that 2784 is easy to remember if you’re Tim Berners-Lee.

Those were the last four digits of his parents’ phone number.

100 words 054

In between publishing the Whole Earth Catalog and spinning up the Long Now Foundation, Stewart Brand wrote an article in Rolling Stone magazine about one of the earliest video games, Spacewar.

Except it isn’t really about Spacewar at all. It’s about the oncoming age of the personal computer.

The article was published in 1972. At the end, there’s an appendix listing some communal places where “one can step in off the street and compute.” One of those places—with 16 terminals available—was run by a certain Bob Kahn.

Together with Vint Cerf he created the Internet’s Transmission Control Protocol.

100 words 053

When I got back from Bletchley Park yesterday, I immediately started huffduffing more stories about cryptography and code-breaking.

One of the stories I found was an episode of Ockham’s Razor featuring Professor Mark Dodgson. He talks about the organisational structure at Bletchley Park:

The important point was the organization emphasised team-working and open knowledge sharing where it was needed, and demarcation and specialisation where it was most appropriate.

This reminds of another extraordinary place, also displaying remarkable levels of collaboration, that has an unusual lack of traditional hierarchies and structure: CERN.

Bletchley Park produced the computer. CERN produced the web.

100 words 037

It started when Jessica relayed something that happened when she was on a cultural walking tour of Sofia two weekends ago. The tour guide asked “Does anyone know who invented the computer?”

Alan Turing? Charles Babbage?

The tour guided pointed to a statue and said, “John Atanasoff.”

I had never heard of him. So of course I looked him up. That led me down the most incredible rabbit hole as I uncovered a courtroom drama filled with invalidated patents and mountains of court records.

Why had I never heard about this? It was eclipsed by a bigger legal drama: Watergate.


One hundred years ago today, Alan Turing was born.

I could claim that without him, we wouldn’t have computers; that without him, World War Two would have lasted another two years at least.

But the truth is that the history of innovation and invention is rarely as linear as that, and that if one genius hadn’t made the great leap forward, some other genius would have. The pieces were there, waiting in the adjacent possible.

And yet, in our timeline, history played out the way it did. So I can say that thanks to Alan Turing, we have computers; thanks to Alan Turing, World War Two was shortened by at least two years.

And I can, with absolute certainty, say that the way Alan Turing was treated after the war was absolutely shameful.

We can learn a lot from the life of Alan Turing. We can learn about computation, universal machines, and artificial intelligence. We can also learn about tolerance, compassion …and love.


Andy and his cohorts have been busy recovering an important televisual document of computer history: The Machine That Changed the World (originally titled The Dream Machine). The series comprises of five parts:

  1. Great Brains
  2. Inventing the Future
  3. The Paperback Computer
  4. The Thinking Machine
  5. The World at Your Fingertips

The first episode is particularly fascinating, tracing the history of the idea of a universal machine, starting with and his Analytical Engine. The documentary includes footage of Doron Swade, author of the excellent book The Cogwheel Brain (released in the States as The Difference Engine). The story then moves on to the turbulent time period of the 1930s and ’40s that saw the creation of the world’s first programmable computers — a period so evocatively described in Neal Stephenson’s Cryptonomicon.

The documentary shies away from declaring any one computer as “First!”, though plenty of time is devoted to . The is covered but the secrecy surrounding the project ensured that its place in computer history would be denied for decades. Churchill himself once quipped that he would personally shoot anyone who blabbed about the code-breaking at .

Today we understand the historical importance of Bletchley Park and yet the charity responsible for the upkeep of the centre has to go cap in hand to the Heritage Lottery Fund to ask for the money required for its upkeep. If you are a British citizen (or resident) and you consider the preservation of the site of the Colossus to be an important task, consider signing the petition to save Bletchley Park.