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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.

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