Computers, Science, and History Thereof

I am reading three online resources in parallel – on the history and the basics of computing, computer science, software engineering, and the related culture and ‘philosophy’. An accidental combination I find most enjoyable.

Joel on Software: Joel Spolsky’s blog – a collection of classic essays. What every developer needs to know about Unicode. New terms like Astronaut Architects and Leaky Abstractions. How to start a self-funded software company, how to figure out the price of software, how to write functional specifications. Bringing back memories of my first encounters with Microsoft VBA. He has the best examples – Martian Headsets to explain web standards.

The blog started in 1999 – rather shortly after I had entered the IT industry. So it is an interesting time capsule, capturing technologies and trends I was sort of part of – including the relationship with one large well-known software company.

Somewhere deep in Joel’s blog I found references to another classic; it was in an advice on how to show passion as an applicant for a software developer job. Tell them how reading this moved you to tears:

Structure and Interpretation of Computer Programs. I think I have found the equivalent to Feynman’s Physics Lectures in computer science! I have hardly ever read a textbook or attended a class that was both so philosophically insightful and useful in a hands-on, practical way. Using Scheme (Lisp) as an example, important concepts are introduced step-by-step, via examples, viewed from different perspectives.

It was amazing how far you can get with purely Functional Programming. I did not even notice that they had not used a single assignment (Data Mutation) until far into the course.

The quality of the resources made available for free is incredible – which holds for all the content I am praising in this post: Full textbook, video lectures with transcripts, slides with detailed comments. It is also good to know and reassuring that despite the allegedly fast paced changes of technology, basic concepts have not changed that much since decades.

But if you are already indulging in nostalgic thoughts why not catch up on the full history of computing?

Creatures of Thought. A sublime book-like blog on the history of computing – starting from with the history of telephone networks and telegraphs, covering computing machines – electro-mechanical or electronic, related and maybe unappreciated hardware components like the relay, and including biographic vignettes of the heroes involved.

The author’s PhD thesis (available for download on the About page) covers the ‘information utility’ vision that was ultimately superseded by the personal computer. This is an interesting time capsule for me as well, as this story ends about where my personal journey started – touching personal PCs in the late 1980s, but having been taught the basics of programming via sending my batch jobs to an ancient mainframe.

From such diligently done history of engineering I can only learn not to rush to any conclusions. There are no simple causes and effects, or unambiguous stories about who invented what and who was first. It’s all subtle evolution and meandering narratives, randomness and serendipity. Quoting from the post that indicates the beginning of the journey, on the origins of the electric telegraph:

Our physics textbooks have packaged up the messy past into a tidy collection of concepts and equations, eliding centuries of development and conflict between competing schools of thought. Ohm never wrote the formula V = IR, nor did Maxwell create Maxwell’s equations.

Though I will not attempt to explore all the twists and turns of the intellectual history of electricity, I will do my best to present ideas as they existed at the time, not as we retrospectively fit them into our modern categories.

~

Phone, 1970s, Austria

The kind of phone I used at the time when the video lectures for Structure and Interpretation of Computer Programs had been recorded and when I submitted my batch jobs of Fortran code to be compiled. I have revived the phone now and then.

 

Virtual Book Spine Poetry (Edition 2014 + 2015/6)

I am going to merge two overdue posts: 1) the 2014 edition of my yearly book reviews, a tradition I started last year, and 2) my next experimental poem, in a new experimental genre.

I owe to the inventors of Book Spine Poetry – and I’d like to challenge this: You can’t do that with ebooks. Which is a problem as I hardly read physical books.

But can’t we stack digital books on top of each other – creating a poem from their titles, that is: their virtual spines?

Books belong mainly in one of these genres.

  • IT security, hacking, and history / culture thereof. Plus a few history of science books
  • Life, work, technology, psychology, and their interdependencies.
  • Sleep research also including books read in 2015. Hence: 2015/6, one sixth of 2015.
  • Fiction by 1) Douglas Coupland, seismograph of geek culture and 2) Andra Watkins, a new author with a signature witty and succinct style.

Take artistic liberty I use the main title or the sub-title as a line of my poem – see the hover text on links for full information. I salt the poem with some spam comments (the lines without hyperlinks), and I add images from a building that boasts Germany’s largest unsupported concrete wall.

If this is too experimental: see my chronological Reading List instead.

it still appears to be a bit surreal to be honest

The Secret Life of Sleep
Exploding the Phone

Hackers
are generally preventing the situation
Democracy Without Secularism

Night School
The Art of Deception

Outliers
Lean In
don’t hesitate and lunge for a goal
Ghost in the Wires

architectural poetry

Not Without My Father
Catch Me If You Can
I am a Strange Loop
The options can be a little intimidating

 Walden
The Glass Cage

The Surprising Science of the Mind at Rest

The Year Without Pants
Slack
Nevertheless, for all it’s success,
Carry On

Microserfs
How to Fail at Almost Everything and Still Win Big

The Hard Thing About Hard Things
Good sleep, good learning, good life
The real trick now is maintaining a pipeline

architectural poetry

Generation A
The 4-Hour Workweek
Farewell to Reality

Girlfriend in a Coma
Hers was a outstanding life
Countdown to Zero Day

Spam Nation
So Good They Can’t Ignore You
it feels like to have a million dollars in bitcoins
Spoilt Rotten

Gödel, Escher, Bach
Robust Control System Networks

To Live Forever
I have always disliked the idea

architectural poetry

Quantum Computing since Democritus
as elliptical and centred as
The Twenty-four Hour Mind

Internal Time
Engineering Security
including officers with drawn weaponry

Generation X
Thinking, Fast and Slow
Moving On
if you are tired of accepting failure

Applied Cryptography
It truly is incomprehensible to me now,
Dreamland

Its not like you’ve said something extremely impressive architectural poetry

My Reading List

This blog has been inspired by books more often than not. When I crafted the first version of my personal website many years ago, a database of my favorite books was one of the first things I added and changed frequently.

For better or for worse – I organize my thoughts and my websites in relation to books I have read or pick books in order to find new ways to articulate what is on my subconscious mind.

Based on the feedback on my recent post about favorite books 2013 I am now keeping

a chronological list of what I am reading.

It is experimental und I might make changes to layout and the organization of items often.

I can’t deny that I have been inspired by The Great Curators, Farnam Street and Brain Pickings. I will never reach their professional level of productivity in digesting and reviewing books – but I can relate a lot to the idea of starting your intellectual adventures from well-articulated accounts given by others.

As a so-called knowledge worker I feel that there is already so much ‘out there’ that the task of the day is not to try to be that original, but to consolidate, re-arrange, or – as they say today – curate existing knowledge. In passing, this might solve my issues with finding my ideas and life too cliché.

It might also give proof to my theory of using social media in bursts. In 2012 and in 2013 I have written some opinionated posts – based on thoughts that were given several years to ripen. I was reliving several career transitions in time lapse.

But I cannot add anything really new or urgent for the moment. I had experienced the same when I setup my personal websites. Hence I also believe the usability or interactivity of the web platform does not matter. I ‘blog’ in pure text and without the technical option to get likes and comments if I feel the need to write.

I did not think a second when I invented my blog’s title. It is of course much too long but I consider it remarkably apt. I try to make weird connections between different things, many of them sciencey.

In summary I felt the urgent need to setup that page as I indulge in keeping blogging a related ‘research’ activities an experiment. I don’t try to put forward a theory here – this is simply how my mind works.

So 2014 might become the year I turn even more to book-inspired essays – but I don’t at all turn this into a managed project with deadlines and to-do lists.

And now I will commit a mortal sin in blogging and not add an image here. You might see an inappropriate ad as I pay for tweaking my style sheets but I don’t pay for the no-ads upgrade.