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Some books about computer history: I mentioned a while back that I was reading Steven Levy's book about the development of the Macintosh. I guess that triggered something in my to clear out my stock of books about computer history, because then I read The Dream Machine, a book about ARPA by M. Mitchel Waldrop (almost as ponderous a name as J. C. R. Licklider), and Andrew Hodges's famous Alan Turing: The Enigma. And there was also the matter of the intermittently fascinating Whole Earth Software Catalog.

I bought the Waldrop book as a biography of Licklider (actually I bought it because of the BRIGHT YELLOW COVER that blocked out all other books in the bookstore), but it really strains to fill a whole book with his life and make it interesting. Fortunately the book's method of straining is to bring in all the other characters of American computer science from the 1940s through the 1970s, with a theme of Licklider as the networker between them, and that was very entertaining. Though I admit part of the entertainingness was the celebrity-spotting equivalent of those old Looney Tunes cartoons that feature charicatures of all the Warner Bros. contract stars of the 1940s. Oh look, it's {Peter Lorre,John McCarthy}.

The most interesting new information I found in the book is the history of ARPA, specifically of the Information Processing Techniques Office (Licklider was IPTO head twice). The major theme is the Vietnam-era mission anticreep that slowly pushed ARPA from advanced research projects, to the more circumscribed realm of advanced research projects that we can use on the battlefield within two years without fundamentally changing anything (somewhat parallel to the problems Xerox PARC had). Meanwhile Licklider's trying to scrape together a couple million to fund his crazy "Intergalactic Network" project, and his office is sticking boilerplate defense justifications onto incoming grant proposals so they can get ARPA money.

"All that language about military rationale wasn't in the Stanford version of the proposals," explains Ed Geigenbaum: it was slapped on at the very end by the ARPA funding officers back in Washington. "The only people who ever saw it were the students who would later dig it up under the Freedom of Information Act. Then they'd bring it on campus and say, 'See, McCarthy is working on such and such.' McCarthy would say, 'What do you mean? I never heard of that!'"

But the book also ties together things that I learned about in college with no that they were connected. For instance, ALOHA and Ethernet use the same collision resolution mechanism not because it's an obvious fact about the universe, but because Bob Metcalfe read a paper slamming ALOHA and decided to prove it could work. And multitasking came directly from time-sharing, as cheaper computers made time-sharing less of a selling point.

Fun fact: the book made it sound like ARPA was originally planned to encompass space research, and that NASA was created as a separate agency after a bureaucratic turf war. So the space program could have been part of ARPA.

Understanding the book requires no technical knowledge, but I don't think I would have enjoyed it as much if I didn't already have all these pieces in my mind ready to be connected. The book made me more interested in another item on my wishlist, John Markoff's What the Dormouse Said.

This entry got kind of long, so I'll talk about the Turing book in another entry.

[Comments] (1) The Enigma: This was a weird book to read because I'd already internalized much of it. It's the standard narrative of Turing's life I grew up with, and if you read it for the details you can actually see Neal Stephenson coming up with the plot for Cryptonomicon. So unlike the Licklider book I don't have a whole lot to say about this one, except that it was definitely worth reading.

One thing that jumped out of me was, reading the WWII sections, how much of the codebreaking relied not on abstract mathematical ingenuity but in ingenuity applied to exploiting the adversary's mistakes. For instance, the Germans often used a less secure version of Enigma for unclassified things like the weather report, not realizing that if Bletchley cracked the weather report they'd be 80% done cracking the secure cipher for that day. Not surprising that this got largely left out of Cryptonomicon, because fiction is usually more interesting when the adversaries are competent.

Nethack Interlude: Despite my earlier promises to myself that I'd stop playing Nethack after ascending, I got hooked earlier this month on the alt.org Nethack server, which yields up many interesting bones files. I started trying to ascend a tourist (to my mind the lamest Nethack class), and this morning I succeeded, achieving #1490 on the alt.org high score board. Since the various conducts have never really appealed to me, hopefully this is the end of Nethack addiction.

[Comments] (1) The Anthropic Principle of Open Systems: There's a common theme in the Licklider book and the Tim Berners-Lee book, the theme of contigency. At every stage in the development of the Internet, there was an overwhelming chance that the project would fail. There were interests vested against openness, and then strong competitors that didn't share the philosophy of openness. But the open solution won. The same thing happened, in miniature, for the Web on top of the Internet. I mentioned this in passing last year.

This creates a problem analagous to the problem of the anthropic principle in physics. It's not a perfect analogy because the development of the Internet took place within space-time, but I think you can see it. Why did all these unlikely contigencies happen?

I can think of three possible responses. The first is that the contigencies weren't unlikely at all. There is some hidden force of society that makes sure open solutions tend to win. This is the knee-jerk free software response. I like it okay, but I've grown more dissatisfied with it as I've read these books, because there are lots of other situations in the world where the open solutions lost big time. When does the hidden force work?

The second response is that we gravitate to whatever open solutions we can find to solve our problems. The general public can't use something unless it's open. If things had turned out differently we might be speculating on how unlikely it was that we would develop a tradition of collaborative biology or open letter-writing.

The third is to deny that there's anything special about the contigencies. We don't talk about things that don't happen, so if these contigencies hadn't happened, we wouldn't be talking about them. Saying that the Internet and the Web worked out the way they did is just a tautology. This response has its points when applied to the physics anthropic principle, but I find it unsatisfying in this case, because it looks like the same sorts of contigencies turned out the same way twice.

Anyway, just some high-concept rambling to see out the year.


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