I'm fascinating by the history of computing. There are so many delights there, both geeky and otherwise: glimpses of our present, odd characters, bril...moreI'm fascinating by the history of computing. There are so many delights there, both geeky and otherwise: glimpses of our present, odd characters, brilliant technical solutions, politics. Turing's Cathedral is a delightful and useful contribution to this field.
George Dyson's book takes place during the 1940s and 1950s, focusing on the extraordinary collection of geniuses in Princeton's Institute for Advanced Study, and who created a huge amount of modern computing. A large part of Turing's Cathedral consists of biographical sketches of key players in early computing, including Stan Ulam, Nils Barracelli, Klari Dán Von Neumann, Thorstein Veblen's nephew, Alan Turing, of course, and especially Johnny von Neumann. This is really von Neumann's book. He gets the lion's share of the text (and photos), becoming the Institute's prime driver and most productive thinker. Turing's Cathedral essentially ends with von Neumann's death.
Other chapters explore the hardware and theory of early computing, from cathode ray tubes and punch cards to stored program architecture and the Monte Carlo method. Dyson also races off in related directions with something like glee, showing, for example, how the IIS was right on top of major Revolutionary War sites, and how one scientist was related to Olivia Newtown John.
Arching across all of these themes is the intertwined history of atomic weapons and computing. This is a controversial theme in cyber-history, and Dyson assembles a great deal of evidence to demonstrate their deep connections.
Turing's Cathedral is filled with energy and some fun writing. A few quotes demonstrate this:
What if the price of machines that think is people who don't? (314)
"Information was never 'volatile' in transit; it was as secure as an acrophobic inchworm on the crest of a sequoia." -Julian Bigelow (137)
Our ever-expanding digital universe is directly descended from the image tube that imploded in the back seat of [Vladimir] Zworykin's car. (81)
We owe the existence of high-speed digital computers to pilots who preferred to be shot down intentionally by their enemies rather than accidentally by their friends. (116)
Von Neumann made a deal with "the other party" in 1946. The scientists would get the computers, and the military would get the bombs. This seems to have turned out well enough so far, because, contrary to von Neumann's expectations, it was the computers that exploded, not the bombs. (303)
"It is an irony of fate that much of the high-tech world we live in today, the conquest of space, the extraordinary advances in biology and medicine, were spurred on by one man's monomania and the need to develop electronic computers to calculate whether an H-bomb could be built or not." -Francoise Ulam (216)
"A clock keeps track of time. A modern general purpose computer keeps track of events." This distinction separates the digital universe from our universe, and is one of the few distinctions left. (300)
"We are Martians who have come to Earth to change everything - and we are afraid we will not be so well received. So we try to keep it a secret, try to appear as Americans... but that we could not do, because of our accent. So we settled in a country nobody ever has heard about and now we are claiming to be Hungarians." -Edward Teller (40)
The book has plenty of gems, like the Swedish scientist Hannes Alfvén and his utopian novel about an AI-ruled future, von Neumann's possibly accidental vision of what post-robotic economics might look like (289), and Nils Barracelli's early visions of artificial life. The sheer ambition, nigh unto mad science, of these early explorers, seeking even to control the weather, is infectious.
There are a few weaknesses, starting with Dyson's aphoristic tendency occasionally backfiring (I don't buy the return of analog idea). Some of the explanations aren't as lucid as they need to be - I'm still not sure what template-based addressing means. And the focus on Princeton and some historical figures doesn't recognize their extraordinary privilege. I was also surprised that Tyson didn't reference Howard Rheingold's groundbreaking and accessible Tools for Thought.
But that's nitpicking. Turing's Cathedral is a treat for geeks, history buffs, and anyone interested in how our digital era came to be.(less)
Influx posits that human ingenuity has actually proceeded much further along than we believe. A secretive...moreA fun read animated mostly by a single idea.
Influx posits that human ingenuity has actually proceeded much further along than we believe. A secretive United States government department has been quietly capturing new innovations, sequestering them away while removing their presence from the world. The Bureau of Technology Control (BTC) does this for our own good, they say, believing that the negative impact of these new ideas would cause too much damage to American (and the world's) social order.
It's a nifty concept, a kind of alternative history tale embedded in our own world. It lets Suarez have fun with intelligence agencies as they try (and fail) to bring BTC to heel. There's also hard sf delights in seeing which inventions have already occurred -strong AI! antigravity! human lifespan extension! Suarez also gives BTC a fun villain in its leader, a power-crazed guy with a dry (perhaps accidental) sense of humor. A very good dystopia boss.
Unfortunately for fans of Suarez' first two novels, especially Daemon, the ideas run out about half-way through. The first half offers some great scenes with reversals and mysteries, including, ah, spoilers: (view spoiler)[... a cruel prison for inventors, with some stark medical horror. But once we see the picture, Influx becomes 99% action thriller. The hero escapes and fights to remain free. He hooks up with allies and they figure out how to break into BTC HQ. A fun heist/battle ensues. A family plot is literally tacked on at the end. We see no new inventions. No signs of impact on the world. No rug-pulling-out-from-under-you plot twists. (hide spoiler)] In Graham Green terms, Influx starts off as a novel, then ends as an entertainment. It only begins with the promise of Daemon.
Other problems: the depiction of Detroit is far too thin. There's very little sense of the city, despite half the book being set there. (My hardcover edition has a hilarious cover showing Detroit as something like Metropolis) It could be set in any other city, really. Which is unfortunate, since there are some interesting resonances between Detroit's sad post-WWII history and what BTC does to the world. There is also a too-convenient character in the book's second half who is far too powerful, more of a plot device than a person.
On the positive side, the book avoids cliche traps. The hero, an eccentric inventor, never becomes an action hero. His main physical achievements include hiding, being captured, showing his wounds, and being captured. The main, inevitable romance is very lightly touched on. And the science is a lot of fun, for those of us who like that sort of thing.["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>(less)
A very useful book on recent technological history, In the Plex takes us through the history of Google. The subject is obviously important to anyone s...moreA very useful book on recent technological history, In the Plex takes us through the history of Google. The subject is obviously important to anyone seeking to understand cyberspace and the digital world.
It's a very engaging book as well, balancing neatly between technical details and human lives. It renders computer science problems accessible to the nonspecialist. And Levy sometimes pulls out entertaining, or at least humanizing, elements:
"I hate ads," says Eric Veach, the Google engineer who created the most successful ad system in history. (83)
These characters and technologies appear within the unusual Google culture, which Levy probes throughout the book. We see the famous playfulness and company-supplied pleasures, along with stresses and war rooms.
Levy organizes the book into large chapters, each of which addresses several years of Google (which are akin to decades elsewhere). For example, one covers the development of the very lucrative ad services, while another follows the messy China involvement. Each chapter takes the company further along in wealth, global reach, and digital development. We watch as the little company offering a single service - search - spreads into a sprawling empire: Google Earth, Google Maps, Web office (Google Docs, etc), the Android phone operating system plus the occasional phone plus telephony service, book scanning, self-driving cars, Google+. We see projects appear and flop: Buzz, Lively, Wave, OpenSocial.
The ultimate part of that arc is worried rather than triumphant, as Levy ends on a questioning note. There's no sense that the impending (as of the book's publication) launch of G+ will help organize the overflowing number of services. Larry Page takes the reins, but problematically, not as the logical heir apparent, still too much Prince Hal.
At first read Levy treats Google with balance, rather than awe. The company's technical achievements appear in an admiring light, but the public antics of Brin and Page look simply embarrassing. The major IPO looks foolish, showing Wall Street to have easily corralled the Google upstars. In the Plex depicts Google's putative attempt to, famously, not be evil in a way which would please neither Google celebrant not its detractors.
Some topics were missing or underemphasized. There's no discussion at all of the late, lamented Google RSS Reader. Lively appears only in a single sentence (and there to be killed), without mention of the contemporary virtual worlds brouhaha. Web associations don't appear (HTML 5 shows up once, 212). The Apple versus Google battle does appear, but in a minimal fashion. We don't see, for instance, discussion of conflicting models of the internet, Web vs app.
Otherwise, this is an important and exciting book. It is already dated, of course, and will continue to recede into the past. But what Levy describes is what makes the world-striding Google colossus, and his work helps us understand it.(less)
**spoiler alert** A very exciting and challenging first half of a book. That reads like Daemon: ideas coming thick and fast, plot twisting unpredictab...more**spoiler alert** A very exciting and challenging first half of a book. That reads like Daemon: ideas coming thick and fast, plot twisting unpredictably. Good exploration of drones.
Then Kill Decision settles into a traditional thriller. The cast of characters remains intact. A clear plot movement appears, and never wavers. It could be a Hollywood action movie.
The finale let me down. Yes, it was nice not to see the source of the villainy... but the posthuman theme was barely developed (if it was inhuman), and the idea of a super-secret conspiracy not made credible enough. The PR subplot didn't go anywhere.
The idea of drones as the next stage of war is better, and gets a good, basic treatment.
Very disappointing to this big fan of Daemon and Freedom.(less)