Friday, February 22, 2013

Just for Fun

A tiny bit off-subject.  As many have noticed I read books.  I like real books more than e-books, but e-books are convenient and I can crank up the font size so I don't have to squint so hard.  Anyway, I read a lot of technical stuff, but I also read recreational books.  Some of which fit the subject of computers.  One such book that I read years ago (about 1982 or 83) is called "The Soul of a New Machine" by Tracy Kidder.  Amazon has the kindle version for $8.89 as of this writing.  Anyway, I remember the first time I read this book (that's right, I'm re-reading it), it is very gripping.  The author just sucks you into the store right away and it just gets more and more interesting as the story develops.  The story is about Data General in 1980 when they developed a minicomputer called the "Eagle."  If you go to Amazon and read the "Prologue" section of this book, you'll know exactly what I'm talking about.  The story features a man named Tom West who was an electronic engineer that designed CPU's for Data General.

When I read this book in the early 80's the computer that Data General produced was still being sold and minicomputers were just another type of computer that a business could purchased.  Now, minicomputers don't really exist anymore.  Servers have replaced them and all the minicomputer companies such as Data General have either gone bankrupt or they were bought out by companies like Compaq and HP (OK, HP bought Compaq too).  So now it's like reading a history book, but the story, none-the-less is still interesting.

Most of the story is about the engineers and programmers that breathed life into their machine.  Interlaced with this story is some computer details broken down so a laymen can understand it.  This is not a hyper-technical story that only an egg-head could read and understand, Kidder did an excellent job of describing what the engineers at Data General told him.

Another book that I've read for fun is called The Cuckoo's Egg: Tracking a Spy Through the Maze of Computer Espionage by Cliff Stoll. This too is an older book and it involves an astronomer academic who was assigned to look into a hiccup in the Unix based accounting system.  He stumbled onto a program that was planted by a spy that managed to get into their system by breaking into other systems.  The book goes onto how he discovers who this person is by getting cooperation with the phone company (to find out what number dialed in) and his frustration with government agencies that didn't view computer crimes as part of their jurisdictions (in fact there was no agency to handle such acts of crimes back then).  I won't spoil the story, but the trail leads him to discover that the hacker/spy broke into several military sites connected to the Internet, and they didn't know that they had been compromised.  If you don't have time to read a book, don't start this one, because it's not the kind of book that you can put down after one or two pages.