Posts Tagged ‘books’

Historians of computing

March 13th, 2018 2 comments

Who are the historians of the computing? The requirement I used for deciding who qualifies (for this post), is that the person has written multiple papers on the subject over a period that is much longer than their PhD thesis (several people have written history of some aspect of computing PhDs and then gone on to research other areas).

Maarten Bullynck. An academic who is a historian of mathematics and has become interested in software; use HAL to find his papers, e.g., What is an Operating System? A historical investigation (1954–1964).

Martin Campbell-Kelly. An academic who has spent his research career investigating computing history, primarily with a software orientation. Has written extensively on a wide variety of software topics. His book “From Airline Reservations to Sonic the Hedgehog: A History of the Software Industry” is still on my pile of books waiting to be read (but other historian cite it extensively). His thesis: “Foundations of computer programming in Britain, 1945-55″, can be freely downloadable from the British Library; registration required.

James W. Cortada. Ex-IBM (1974-2012) and now working at the Charles Babbage Institute. Written extensively on the history of computing. More of a hardware than software orientation. Written lots of detail oriented books and must have pole position for most extensive collection of material to cite (his end notes are very extensive). His “Buy The Digital Flood: The Diffusion of Information Technology Across the U.S., Europe, and Asia” is likely to be the definitive work on the subject for some time to come. For me this book is spoiled by the author towing the company line in his analysis of the IBM antitrust trial; my analysis of the work Cortada cites reaches the opposite conclusion.

Nathan Ensmenger. An academic; more of a people person than hardware/software. His paper Letting the Computer Boys Take Over contains many interesting insights. His book The Computer Boys Take Over Computers, Programmers, and the Politics of Technical Expertise is a combination of topics that have been figured and back with references and topics still being figured out (I wish he would not cite Datamation, a trade mag back in the day, so often).

Kenneth S. Flamm. An academic and has held senior roles in government. Writes from a industry evolution, government interests, economic perspective. The books: “Targeting the Computer: Government Support and International Competition” and “Creating the Computer: Government, Industry and High Technology” are packed with industry related economic data and covers all the major industrial countries.

Michael S. Mahoney. An academic who is sadly no longer with us. A historian of mathematics before becoming involved with primarily software.

Jeffrey R. Yost. An academic. I have only read his book “Making IT Work: A history of the computer services industry”, which was really a collection of vignettes about people, companies and events; needs some analysis. Must try to track down some of his papers (which are not available via his web page :-(.

Who have I missed? This list is derived from papers/books I have encountered while working on a book, not an active search for historians. Suggestions welcome.


Completely forgot Kenneth S. Flamm, despite enjoying both his computer books.

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Computer books your great grandfather might have read

January 12th, 2018 No comments

I have been reading two very different computer books written for a general readership: Giant Brains or Machines that Think, published in 1949 (with a retrospective chapter added in 1961) and LET ERMA DO IT, published in 1956.

‘Giant Brains’ by Edmund Berkeley, was very popular in its day.

Berkeley marvels at a computer performing 5,000 additions per second; performing all the calculations in a week that previously required 500 human computers (i.e., people using mechanical adding machines) working 40 hours per week. His mind staggers at the “calculating circuits being developed” that can perform 100,00 additions a second; “A mechanical brain that can do 10,000 additions a second can very easily finish almost all its work at once.”

The chapter discussing the future, “Machines that think, and what they might do for men”, sees Berkeley struggling for non-mathematical applications; a common problem with all new inventions. Automatic translator and automatic stenographer (typist who transcribe dictation) are listed. There is also a chapter on social control, which is just as applicable today.

This was the first widely read book to promote Shannon‘s idea of using the algebra invented by George Boole to analyze switching circuits symbolically (THE 1940 Masters thesis).

The ‘ERMA’ book paints a very rosy picture of the future with computer automation removing the drudgery that so many jobs require; it is so upbeat. A year later the USSR launched Sputnik and things suddenly looked a lot less rosy.

Added two more books

Cybernetics Or Communication And Control In The Animal And The Machine by Norbert Wiener

The Organization Of Behavior A Neuropsychological Theory by D. O. Hebb

and another

The Preparation of Programs for an Electronic Digital Computer by Wilkes, Wheeler, Gill (the link is to the 1957 second edition, not the 1951 first edition)

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Christmas books for 2017

December 8th, 2017 No comments

Some suggestions for books this Christmas. As always, the timing of books I suggest is based on when they reach the top of my books-to-read pile, not when they were published.

“Life ascending: The ten great inventions of evolution” by Nick Lane. The latest thinking (as of 2010) on the major events in the evolution of life. Full of technical detail, very readable, and full of surprises (at least for me).

“How buildings learn” by Stewart Brand. Yes, I’m very late on this one. So building are just like software, people want to change them in ways not planned by their builders, they get put to all kinds of unexpected uses, some of them cannot keep up and get thrown away and rebuilt, while others age gracefully.

“Dead Man Working” by Cederström and Fleming is short and to the point (having an impact on me earlier in the year), while “No-Collar: The humane workplace and its hidden costs” by Andrew Ross is longer (first half is general, second a specific instance involving one company). Both have a coherent view work in the knowledge economy.

If you are into technical books on the knowledge economy, have a look at “Capitalism without capital” by Haskel and Westlake (the second half meanders off, covering alleged social consequences), and “Antitrust law in the new economy” by Mark R. Patterson (existing antitrust thinking is having a very hard time grappling with knowledge-based companies).

If you are into linguistics, then “Constraints on numerical expressions” by Chris Cummins (his PhD thesis is free) provides insight into implicit assumptions contained within numerical expressions (of the human conversation kind). A must read for anybody interested in automated fact checking.

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Information on computers from the 1970s and earlier

July 7th, 2017 No comments

A collection of links to sources of hardware and software related information from the 1970s and earlier.

Computers and Automation, a monthly journal published between 1954 and 1978, by far and away the best source of detailed information from this period. The June issue contained an extensive computer directory and buyers guide, including a census of installed computers. The collected census for 1962-1974 must rank in the top ten of pdf files that need to be reliably converted to text.

Computer characteristics quarterly, the title says it all; the stories about the weird and wonderful computers that used to be on sale really are true. Only a couple of issues available online at the moment.

Bitsavers huge collection of scanned computer manuals. The directory listing of computer companies is a resource in its own right.

DTIC (Defense Technical Information Center). A treasure trove of work sponsored by the US military from the time of Rome and late.

Ed Thelan’s computer history: note his contains material that can be hard to find via the main page, e.g., the BRL 1961 report.

“Inventory of Automatic data processing equipment in the Federal Government”: There are all sorts of interesting documents lurking in pdfs waiting to be found by the right search query.


“Software Reliability” by Thayer, Lipow and Nelson is now available online.

The Economics of Computers” by William F. Sharpe contains lots of analysis and data on computer purchase/leasing and usage/performace details from the mid-1960s.

“Data processing technology and economics” by Montgomery Phister is still only available in dead tree form (and uses up a substantial amount of tree).

Handbook of Automation Computation and Control Volume 2

“Foundations of computer programming in Britain, 1945-55″, M. Campbell-Kelly’s PhD thesis (freely downloadable from the British Library; registration required).


Computers in Spaceflight The NASA Experience covers computers used in spacecraft up to the mid 1980s.

History of NSA General-Purpose Electronic Digital Computers (written in 1964, declassified in 2004).

Missing in Action

“A Study of Technological Innovation: The Evolution of Digital Computers”, Kenneth Knight’s PhD thesis at Carnegie Institute of Technology, published in 1963. Given Knight’s later work, this will probably be a very interesting read.

“Computer Survey”, compiled by Mr Peddar, was a quarterly list of computers installed in the UK. It relied on readers (paper) mailing in details of computers in use. There are a handful of references and that’s all I can find.

What have I missed? Suggests and links very welcome.

Christmas books for 2016

December 5th, 2016 No comments

Here are couple of suggestions for books this Christmas. As always, the timing of the books I suggest is based on when they reach the top of the books-to-read pile, not when they were published.

“The Utopia of rules” by David Graeber (who also wrote the highly recommended “Debt : The First 5000 Years”). Full of eye opening insights into bureaucracy, how the ‘free’ world’s state apparatus came to have its current form and how various cultures have reacted to the imposition of bureaucratic rules. Very readable.

“How Apollo Flew to the Moon” by W. David Woods. This is a technical nuts-and-bolts story of how Apollo got to the moon and back. It is the best book I have every read on the subject, and as a teenager during the Apollo missions I read all the books I could find.

This year’s blog find was Scott Adams’ blog (yes, he of Dilbert fame). I had been watching Donald Trump’s rise for about a year and understood that almost everything he said was designed to appeal to a specific audience and the fact that it sounded crazy to those not in the target audience was irrelevant. I found Scott’s blog contained lots of interesting insights of the goings on in the US election; the insights into why Trump was saying the things he said have proved to be spot on.

For those of you interested in theoretical physics I ought to mention Backreaction (regular updates, primarily about gravity related topics) and Of Particular Significance (sporadic updates and primarily about particle physics)

Pre-Internet era books that have not yet been bettered

October 31st, 2016 2 comments

It is a surprise to some that there are books written before the arrival of the Internet (say 1995) that have not yet been improved on. The list below is based on books I own and my thinking that nothing better has been published on that topic may be due to ignorance on my part or personal bias. Suggestions and comments welcome.

Before the Internet the only way to find new and interesting books was to visit a large book shop. In my case these were Foyles, Dillons (both in central London) and Computer Literacy (in Silicon valley).

Foyles was the most interesting shop to visit. Its owner was somewhat eccentric, books were grouped by publisher and within these subgroups alphabetic by author, and they stocked one of everything (many decades before Amazon’s claim to fame of stocking the long tail, but unlike Amazon they did not have more than one of the popular books). The lighting was minimal, every available space was piled with books (being tall was necessary to reach some books), credit card payment had to be transacted through a small window in the basement reached via creaky stairs or a 1930’s lift. A visit to the computer section at Foyles, which back in the day held more computer books than any other shop I have ever visited, was an afternoon’s experience (the end result of tight fisted management, not modern customer experience design), including the train journey home with a bundle of interesting books. Today’s Folyes has sensible lighting, a Coffee shop and 10% of the computer books it used to have.

When they can be found, these golden oldies are often available for less than the cost of the postage. Sometimes there are republished versions that are cheaper/more expensive. All of the books below were originally published before 1995. I have listed the ISBN for the first edition when there is a second edition (it can be difficult to get Amazon to list first editions when later editions are available).

“Chaos and Fractals” by Peitgen, Jürgens and Saupe ISBN 0387979034. A very enjoyable months reading. A second edition came out around 2004, but does not look to be that different from the 1992 version.

“The Terrible Truth About Lawyers” by Mark H. McCormack, ISBN 0002178699. Very readable explanation of how to deal with lawyers.

“Understanding Comics: The Invisible Art” by Scott McCloud. A must read for anybody interested in producing code that is easy to understand.

“C: A Reference Manual” by Samuel P. Harbison and Guy L. Steele Jr, ISBN 0-13-110008-4. Get the first edition from 1984, subsequent editions just got worse and worse.

“NTC’s New Japanese-English Character Dictionary” by Jack Halpern, ISBN 0844284343. If you love reading dictionaries you will love this.

“Data processing technology and economics” by Montgomery Phister. Technical details covering everything you ever wanted to know about the world of 1960’s computers; a bit of a specialist interest, this one.

I ought to mention “Godel, Escher, Bach” by D. Hofstadter, which I never rated but lots of other people enjoyed.

Christmas books: 2015

December 13th, 2015 No comments

The following is a list of the really interesting books I read this year (only one of which was actually published in 2015, everything has to work its way through several piles and being available online is a shortcut to the front of the queue). The list is short because I did not read many books.

The best way to learn about something is to do it and The Language Construction Kit by Mark Rosenfelder ought to be required reading for all software developers. It is about creating human languages and provides a very practical introduction into how human languages are put together.

The Righteous Mind by Jonathan Haidt. Yet more ammunition for moving Descartes‘s writings on philosophy into the same category as astrology and flat Earth theories.

I’m still working my way through Mining of Massive Datasets by Jure Leskovec, Anand Rajaraman and Jeff Ullman.

If you are thinking of learning R, then the best book (and the one I am recommending for a workshop I am running) is still: The R Book by Michael J. Crawley.

There are books piled next to my desk that might get mentioned next year.

I spend a lot more time reading blogs these days and Ben Thompson’s blog Stratechery is definitely my best find of the year.

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Christmas books for 2011

December 11th, 2011 No comments

The following is my suggested list of books to consider buying somebody to celebrate Christmas or Isaac Newton’s birthday (in the Julian calendar which applied when he was born). To pad out the list I have added a few books from Christmas’s before I started this blog.

The Number sense by Stanislas Dehaene, the second edition is a significantly revised and expanded version of the 1997 first edition and is even better than the first. A very readable introduction to the brain structures involved in processing numbers along with lots of practical examples of how this processing effects our everyday handling of number related situations. If you regularly work with numbers you have to read this book.

Understanding Comics by Scott McCloud. Superficially about comics but really a master class on how to convey lots of information with the minimum of content. An indispensable read for anybody with an interest in writing source code or diagrams that can be understood by other people.

The Psychology of language by Trevor Harley (now in its third edition which I have not read, this recommendations applies to the second edition from 2001). This book is the perfect antidote to the Chomsky syntax/semantics nonsense that continues to permeate the software world. This book discusses linguistic behavior from the perspective of psychological processes elucidated from experimental evidence. Not such an easy read as my first two recommendations, but worth the investment.

R in a Nutshell by Joseph Adler. A handy quick reference to have sitting next to the keyboard. There is opportunity for improvement in this niche but in 2011 this is king of the hill.

Europe at War by Norman Davies. Broad brush view of World war II from a variety of perspectives. Lots of numbers and readable analysis. An eye-opener for anybody who thinks that Britain’s (and all other European allies) manpower contribution, in the overall scale of things, was significant.

Other suggestions welcome.


Christmas book for 2010

December 19th, 2010 No comments

I’m rather late with my list of Christmas books for 2010. While I do have a huge stack of books waiting to be read I don’t seem to have read many books this year (I have been reading lots of rather technical blogs this year, i.e., time/thought consuming ones) and there is only one book I would strongly recommend.

Anybody with even the slightest of interest in code readability needs to read
Reading in the Brain
by Stanislaw Dehaene (the guy who wrote The Number Sense, another highly recommended book). The style of the book is half way between being populist and being an undergraduate text.

Most of the discussion centers around the hardware/software processing that takes place in what Dehaene refers to as the letterbox area of the brain (in the left occipito-temporal cortex). The hardware being neurons in the human brain and software being the connections between them (part genetically hardwired and part selectively learned as the brain’s owner goes through childhood; Dehaene is not a software developer and does not use this hardware/software metaphor).

As any engineer knows, knowledge of the functional characteristics of a system are essential when designing other systems to work with it. Reading this book will help people separate out the plausible from the functionally implausible in discussions about code readability.

Time and again the reading process has co-opted brain functionality that appears to have been designed to perform other activities. During the evolution of writing there also seems to have been some adaptation to existing processes in the brain; a lesson here for people designing code visualizations tools.

In my C book I tried to provide an overview of the reading process but skipped discussing what went on in the brain, partly through ignorance on my part and also a belief that we were a long way from having an accurate model. Dehaene’s book clearly shows that a good model of what goes on in the brain during reading is now available.

Christmas books for 2009

December 7th, 2009 No comments

I thought it would be useful to list the books that gripped me one way or another this year (and may be last year since I don’t usually track such things closely); perhaps they will give you some ideas to add to your Christmas present wish list (please make your own suggestions in the Comments). Most of the books were published a few years ago, I maintain piles of books ordered by when I plan to read them and books migrate between piles until eventually read. Looking at the list I don’t seem to have read many good books this year, perhaps I am spending too much time reading blogs.

These books contain plenty of facts backed up by numbers and an analytic approach and are ordered by physical size.

The New Science of Strong Materials by J. E. Gordon. Ideal for train journeys since it is a small book that can be read in small chunks and is not too taxing. Offers lots of insight into those properties of various materials that are needed to build things (‘new’ here means postwar).

Europe at War 1939-1945 by Norman Davies. A fascinating analysis of the war from a numbers perspective. It is hard to escape the conclusion that in the grand scheme of things us plucky Brits made a rather small contribution, although subsequent Hollywood output has suggested otherwise. Also a contender for a train book.

Japanese English language and culture contact by James Stanlaw. If you are into Japanese culture you will love this, otherwise avoid.

Evolutionary Dynamics by Martin A. Nowak. For the more mathematical folk and plenty of thought power needed. Some very powerful general results from simple processes.

Analytic Combinatorics by Philippe Flajolet and Robert Sedgewick. Probably the toughest mathematical book I have kept at (yet to get close to the end) in a few years. If number sequences fascinate you then give it a try (a pdf is available).

Probability and Computing by Michael Mitzenmacher and Eli Upfal. For the more mathematical folk and plenty of thought power needed. Don’t let the density of Theorems put you off, the approach is broad brush. Plenty of interesting results with applications to solving problems using algorithms containing a randomizing component.

Network Algorithmics by George Varghese. A real hackers book. Not so much a book about algorithms used to solve networking problems but a book about making engineering trade-offs and using every ounce of computing functionality to solve problems having severe resource and real-time constraints.

Virtual Machines by James E. Smith and Ravi Nair. Everything you every wanted to know about virtual machines and more.

Biological Psychology by James W. Kalat. This might be a coffee table book for scientists. Great illustrations, concise explanations, the nuts and bolts of how our bodies runs at the protein/DNA level.