Issue No. 01 - January-March (2005 vol. 27)
DOI Bookmark: http://doi.ieeecomputersociety.org/10.1109/MAHC.2005.12
Raul Rojas , Free University of Berlin
Haruhisa Ishida, Mikio Aoyama, Jun Adachi, Shinji Shioda, and Shinichirou Yamada, 100 Classics for Young Computer Engineers (konpyu-ta no meicho koten 100 satsu), Impress, 2003, 255 pp., 1500 JPY, ISBN 4-8443-1828-4.
This book is a collection of short essays about books considered influential in computer science. The main editor and author, Haruhisa Ishida, is professor emeritus of Tokyo University and is known in Japan as the person who introduced Unix to the country. For this project, Ishida formed a committee, the book's coauthors, to select and review books for an audience of young engineers and students. The committee members are also computing practitioners. As stated in the preface, the committee asked other experts to nominate excellent computing books, filtering out the final roll of 100 books from a much longer list. One third of the 100 books chosen deal with the history of technology. Eighty percent of the total have been translated from English, so Annals readers will easily recognize the English titles among the Japanese characters. With this volume, senior professors and computing experts are trying to encourage students to read the most important computing classics.
The volume contains many comments from practitioners other than the authors. The articles describe how each author encountered a book, and the influence the book had on him. For example, in the case of The C Programming Language, written by Brian W. Kernighan and Dennis M. Ritchie (Prentice Hall, 1978), a main comment and five additional ones listed in a sidebar explain how the book became one of the most cherished by Japanese programmers. In the same manner, Computer Organization and Design: The Hardware/Software Interface, written by John L. Hennessy and David A. Patterson (Morgan Kaufmann, 1993, 1997) gets six comments in the sidebar. The comments show how much the book has been read and used as the textbook of choice for computer architecture in Japan.
If the authors had been historians, the book selection would have been different. For example, the only book in the list about the history of the Internet is Katie Hafner and Matthew Lyon's Where Wizards Stay Up Late (Simon & Schuster, 1998). It is also easy to spot some important omissions, such as Maurice Wilkes' Programs for An Electronic Digital Computer, which is an important work in the history of computing.
Even with those omissions, the collection the Japanese committee selected is, in itself, interesting because it provides valuable insight on the circulation of knowledge in the computing profession across national boundaries. It also shows the reverence of computing professionals in Japan for seminal works in the field.
Chigusa Kita, Kansai University; firstname.lastname@example.org
James Essinger, Jacquard's Web: How a Hand-Loom Led to the Birth of the Information Age, Oxford University Press, 2004, 313 pp., $28, ISBN 0-19-280577-0.
This is a general history of computing that begins with the looms developed by Joseph-Marie Jacquard during the French Revolution and the French Empire that were driven by punched cards. The author describes the links between those looms and the development of Charles Babbage's engines of the 19th century, Herman Hollerith's tabulators, Howard Aiken's work at Harvard in the 1940s, and the rise of IBM, all of which used punched cards to instruct machines on what tasks to perform. Essinger argues that the concept of using punched cards—first put forth by Jacquard—eventually led to the "weaving" of information and thus was the central contribution to modern computing.
He devotes the first four chapters to Jacquard's story, providing one of the most useful and complete accounts in English of this inventor's work. He next provides five chapters describing the work of Charles Babbage and Ada Lovelace, retelling the familiar story. Hollerith and the birth of IBM are the subjects of an additional three chapters, followed by two devoted to Aiken. He ends the book with a reaffirmation of the links between Jacquard and the evolution of computing to the present.
In each instance, he demonstrates how the next inventor knew of, and relied on, the original notions of Jacquard's loom, taking great pains to establish that subsequent inventors were influenced by Jacquard and knew of his looms. Throughout the book, he makes dramatic statements about these links. For example, regarding Babbage, he wrote, "The conceptual link Babbage made between his own work and Jacquard's is beyond doubt one of the greatest intellectual breakthroughs in the history of modern thought" (p. 48). And, "the argument at the very heart of this book [is] that in essence a computer is merely a special kind of Jacquard loom" (p. 87). On the one hand, I'd call this book a good read; on the other, it contains statements that are either misleading or simply subject to question by historians.
The author is at his best when describing the work of Jacquard, Babbage, and Aiken, even when he perhaps overstates the links between their activities. He is at his weakest when he describes Hollerith and, to a certain extent, IBM. For example, he criticizes Hollerith for being a poor businessman, yet the historical record suggests that any reader would have been delighted to have had as successful a life as he did, both as an inventor and as the creator of a start-up firm that a professional manager (Thomas J. Watson) later turned into IBM. Also, the book is occasionally marred by factual errors. For example, he states that the transistor became available in 1959 (p. 247), when in fact more than 250 companies were manufacturing these little devices several years earlier. He later goes on to hint that the World Wide Web had a link back to the 18th century inventor (pp. 256–257), which is a bit of a stretch.
Leaving aside these few errors of fact and judgment, and the occasional bombastic conclusions and statements, this is a quick, light history, based largely on secondary sources. The author also used a few of Babbage's letters, which came to light recently, to prepare this book. Yet, this is not a scholarly treatment of the subject. The book includes a number of illustrations, the most useful are of Jacquard's loom and various themes related to Babbage. The bibliography is missing major studies of his various subjects (such as Emerson Pugh's history of IBM and recent biographies of Watson) and is incomplete in citations of recent French publications on Jacquard, which the author states were essential to this study (p. 287).
James W. Cortada, IBM Corporation; email@example.com
Douglas Thomas, Hacker Culture, University of Minnesota Press, 2002, 266 pp., $19.95, ISBN 0816633460.
Hacker Culture explores the development of the hacker subculture and its relationship with mainstream society. Although not primarily historical in focus, the book explores the changing public perception of hackers over the past several decades.
In the book's first section, Douglas Thomas traces the evolution of the old hacker culture of the 1960s and 70s into the new hacker culture of the 1990s. The 1960s hacker culture, as Thomas generally refers to it, was centered around computer science programs at elite institutions such as Harvard, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and Cornell. Its primary concern was with creating beautiful things, with the "liberation" of information (which intrinsically "wanted to be free"), and generally "rendering technology benign" (p. 32). Hackers in this period saw themselves, and were seen by the public, as guardians of technology, "scientists with an ethic that resembled Isaac Asimov's 'Laws of Robotics'" (p. 11).
Although the original hacker ethics of the 1960s continues to exert influence over contemporary hacker culture, Thomas argues, by the late 1980s, hacking had also undergone a critical cultural transformation. In a world in which computers and information technology were becoming increasingly ubiquitous, centralized, and seemingly beyond society's ability to understand or control, the hacker assumed symbolic significance: mysterious, dangerous, the embodiment of contemporary anxieties about technology. In this new cyberpunk vision, hackers are no longer seen as guardians but as criminals, destructive rather than creative. Rather than liberating hidden knowledge, they threaten to invade our privacy and expose our personal secrets (such as credit card numbers).
Through a detailed study of media representations of hackers—from the heroic 1983 film Wargames to the sensational coverage of "dark side hacker" Kevin Mitnick—Thomas convincingly demonstrates how public perceptions of hacker culture are as much reflections of the larger cultural zeitgeist as they are accurate portrayals of real developments within the hacker community.
More importantly, however, he shows how hackers themselves contribute to the construction (and misconstrual) of this identity. As hackers engage in what Thomas describes as the "performance of technology," they "enact and exploit the fundamental contradictions and relationships that people have to technology and each other."(p. 50). The knowledge that hackers possess is made more valuable if it is dangerous, Thomas argues, and so, even as they decry what they see as inaccurate media representations of hacker criminality, hackers revel in the power that is ascribed to them in such accounts.
In the second section of the book, Thomas fully develops his reading of media representations of hacker culture. Building on the work of Michel Foucault, Sherry Turkle, and Richard Hebdige (among others), Thomas argues that hacking challenges the traditional dynamics of youth-oriented subcultures. Whereas most subcultures are defined by the rearticulation and recontextualization of mainstream cultural objects—think of the significance of the safety pin in early 1980s punk culture, for example—the hacker subculture is not based on material artifacts but rather on knowledge production. This feature of hacker culture makes it extremely resistant to reincorporation into the mainstream. The widespread adoption of the ostensible material focus of hacker culture, the computer, has in fact, Thomas argues, only increased the subversive power and appeal of hacking. As the computer itself becomes easier to use and therefore more ubiquitous, the majority of users are increasingly distanced from its inner workings. Therefore, the hidden knowledge of the hacker is even more powerful and mysterious.
In the book's last section, Thomas explores what he calls "the juridical construction of the hacker" (p. 179). His focus is on several important criminal cases involving such hackers as Kevin Mitnick, Kevin Paulson (also known as Dark Dante), and Chris Lamprecht (aka Minor Threat). Thomas uses the sensational media coverage of these events, as well as the seemingly disproportionate sentences handed out to the perpetrators, to support his larger argument about the symbolic transformation of hackers in contemporary culture. He demonstrates clearly the ways in which representations of hacker culture—from without as well as within—are often forced into conventional narrative structures (for example, the frequent representation of hackers as outlaw gunslingers or as awkward, body-conscious, nerdy adolescents).
Hacker Culture is filled with interesting facts and provocative analysis. Its organization suggests a series of interrelated essays rather than a comprehensive survey, but that does not detract from its overall usefulness. Given the generally sensational and superficial treatment that computer hackers have attracted over the past several decades, Thomas' book provides a refreshingly rigorous and scholarly perspective.
Nathan Ensmenger, University of Pennsylvania; firstname.lastname@example.org
Kathleen Broome Williams, Grace Hopper: Admiral of the Cyber Sea, Naval Institute Press, 2004, 240 pp., $32.95, ISBN 1-55750-952-2.
There are several books about Grace Hopper, written for diverse audiences. This scholarly book forms part of the Library of Naval Biography, which according to the book's preface is a source of "accurate, informative, and interpretive biographies of influential naval figures." Although Hopper is best remembered for the work she did working with computers, she was also a member of the US Navy for many years. In 1985, Hopper became only the sixth woman to be promoted to rear admiral, retiring the following year aboard the USS Constitution in Boston Harbor. Although this book focuses on Hopper's navy career, it describes her life and work in abundant detail. Computing professionals, with no interest in military affairs, will find the book interesting and readable.
Hopper was at the right place at the right time. After graduating from Vassar College in 1928 at 22 years old (majoring in mathematics and physics), she became a college professor. In 1934, she was awarded a PhD in mathematics at Yale. Although gifted, the only career prospect open to her seemed to be teaching. She had married a few years before (changing her name from Murray to Hopper) and lived with her husband on the Vassar campus. Both led the uneventful life of an academic couple slowly climbing the career ladder. However, this all changed with the outbreak of World War II. The conflict brought an end "to everything predictable about her future" (p. 18). In 1941, she divorced her husband, keeping the name Hopper for the rest of her life, and started trying to join the military.
The first difficulty was Hopper's physique. She weighed only 105 pounds for her 5 feet, 6 inches. She was 35 years old and had a profession that only allowed her to serve in classified activities. Eventually, she managed to join the navy as a WAVES (Women Accepted for Volunteer Emergency Service) officer, finishing her military training in 1944. Her first assignment led her to Harvard, Howard Aiken, and the Mark I, and into the history books.
The day Aiken met Hopper, he handed her the coding manual and told her to start producing programs. Her first programming task was to obtain interpolation coefficients for a certain calculation. She wrote several small pieces of code and started collecting them into a library. Looking back, she dated her interest in compilers back to her experiences programming the Mark I while trying to reuse code. Whenever pieces of old code had to be inserted as part of new code, absolute addresses had to be recomputed and the code itself was copied by hand to be punched. The process was error prone, and this was one activity that could certainly be left to the computer itself.
At some point, Aiken assigned Hopper to write a book describing the Mark I. The description was necessary because sometimes programs failed, not because the code was wrong, but because the timing of faulty relays would destroy the calculation. The programmers had to be aware of hardware issues and should know where to check. The result of this work, A Manual of Operation for the Automatic Sequence Controlled Calculator (Harvard University Press, 1946), was the most detailed, surviving description of the Mark I, and was at the same time, Hopper's first notable achievement.
The Harvard group disbanded shortly after the war, and Hopper went to work in 1949 for the new Eckert Mauchly Computer Corporation. She worked on methods for speeding up the writing of programs and witnessed Univac I's development. Not interested in hardware (the part of the machine "that you can kick," she used to say), she continued working on programming projects and, in 1951, started writing a compiler. The motivation was code reusability and compatibility across different machines. At the time, this was a revolutionary concept.
There were several attempts, predating Hopper's work, at developing pseudocodes that made programming easier. Between October 1951 and May 1952, Hopper wrote her first compiler, called A-0. Hopper referred to it, not as a language, but as a series of specifications on how to assemble larger programs out of building blocks. The next system, the A-2 compiler, was a kind of pseudocode for mathematical problem solving.
As director of Automatic Programming Development at the Univac division of Remington-Rand, Hopper presided over the design of more sophisticated programming tools in the subsequent years. Her vision was to talk to the computer in plain English, letting the computer assemble the correct code by itself. Although the compilers were loved by the customers, she found it hard to convince her own company to follow this path. Eventually though, the B-0 compiler, renamed later the Flow-Matic, was delivered. It could translate instructions written using keywords in plain English. The rest is history: the computer industry came to accept the usefulness of compilers, and in the ensuing years, many high-level computer languages appeared.
There are many legends about Hopper (she was never married, she invented the term bug, and so on), which this book easily debunks. But there is one piece of information that is really new for me and that would put Hopper at the place and time where the word software was invented. Hopper talked about the hardware and the programs as a "layette" on top of the machine. Someone at the company started calling this software and the name stuck. Alas, the story was told by Hopper herself, who was reportedly sometimes sloppy with her remembrances.
Hopper's greatest contribution to computing materialized in 1960, when a committee appointed to develop a new programming language came out with the definition of the Common Business Oriented Language. Hopper was a prominent member of the committee and the book states that the bulk of Cobol was based on Flow-Matic. It would be interesting for a historian of computer languages to compare the two languages to find out how much of Flow-Matic really went into Cobol. At the time, other companies had developed compilers of their own (most notably Fortran), and some concepts could have spread through the computing community.
Hopper was brought back to active duty by the Navy after she left Univac. Her task was to supervise the standardization of computer languages. The final chapters of the book describe her success on this task, as well as the many obstacles that she had to overcome in a male-dominated world. A fine feature of this book is that it shows how Hopper, during all periods of her life, was raised in a world where there was a definite place for males and another for females; yet, she always swam against the stream en route to all her accomplishments.
Hopper retired and re-retired many times, but she made a final stint at the now defunct Digital Equipment Corporation in 1986, at the age of 80. At DEC, she was in charge of representing the company in some conference panels, speaking for the company, and traveling through the US as a living monument. Her fame was enormous, and the number of her awards only grew with time. On 1 January 1992, Hopper died in her sleep.
I must confess that being a computer scientist, my main interest in this book was to know more about Hopper as a computer professional. I got more than I had bargained for: the book transforms the icon into a living person, of flesh and blood. We learn about her Navy work, but we also learn about her ideas, aspirations, and determination. A colorful character, Hopper made history by jumping directly into it when the opportunity arrived. On 6 September 1995, the USS Hopper destroyer was commissioned by the US Navy as the only ship I am aware of to be named after a computing pioneer.
Margarita Esponda, Free University of Berlin; email@example.com