Celestial Weasel (celestialweasel) wrote,
Celestial Weasel

It's the Queen Of Darkness, Pal

Mr Weasel's list of non-fiction books he would like to read and on some level, to varying extents, write, mainly about the minutiae of computing / technical / scientific history of the 20th / 21st century.

In no particular order....

1. 20 GOTO 10
A history of the British micro-computer from the early days of the MK14, Nascom, Acorn System 1, RM until their eclipse as mass-market machines by PC clones and games consoles.
There are, I think, plenty of interesting stories to tell, and this book cries out to be written. The problem would be deciding what to include as it is potentially a big topic. Also, since there is lots of stuff on the Internet, one would need to somehow make it more than the sum of its anecdotes.

2. Optional Reception Of Announcements
A cultural and technical history of Ceefax, Oracle, Teletext UK and teletext in other countries. The name, of course, comes from the backtronym Optional Reception of Announcements by Coded Line Electronics. The good things about this topic are
a) it is a good time to write it as, of course, Teletext will be going along with analog television with the analog switch-off in 2012. Therefore there is a good hook to hang the book on.
b) unlike many fine British technologies it has been a genuine success
The aim would be to go beyond the technology. Well, you'd have to to fill a book really. Who designed the colour schemes? Why did / does British teletext and Ceefax in particular look so much better than the ones one comes across when on holiday in mainland Europe? Who chose the colours? And the page numbers? How does one get the knack of writing articles and, more challengingly, titles to fit the format. All the news fit to print in 35 characters. Who came up with the bizarre ITV Oracle Soap Opera 'Park Avenue'. (Oh, bugger me, it gets a mention on Wikipedia if not an actual article - "Park Avenue is also the name of a teletext-based Soap Opera in the 1980s / 1990s, on the Oracle service, which ran on ITV. It was written by Robert Burns.")

3. Genocide For Dummies
As you may know, there is a book called IBM And The Holocaust, concerning the use of IBM tabulators and their use in the Holocaust, and the American IBM's alleged complicity in this. The thing that struck me reading this book was that rather more technical detail would be interesting and strengthen the message. One advantage of writing this would be that one could benefit from the author's original research, however it would obviously be largely in German and I sense that the author might be rather challenging to deal with. Clearly the title would have to change for reasons of having the arse sued out of one.

4. Untitled tabulator book
A book about the dinosaurs of the computation world, the punched-card machines that roamed free across the plains of American (mostly) business from 1890 until the 1960s. I have some contemporary books about them, and they are covered in a couple of history books, but for reasons I can't quite put my finger on they are not quite what I want to read. I think what I am after is a bit more detail of what people did to 'program' (for want of a better word) and use them on a day-to-day basis.

5. The First 50 Programs (or other suitable value of n)
Source code and descriptions of the first 50 computer programs. Clearly there is a great deal of wiggle room here as to what gets included, and I imagine it will be exploited to the full. Not every program will have its source code if necessary to get them to fit, there may be exclusions of some programs that are essentially just test programs.

6. Singularity And Cucumber Sandwiches
Techno-utopianism, a British perspective. Why the US has Wired and we have/had NTK and The Register. Should feature interviews with Techno-optimists / utopians who fled - Messrs More and Platt for a start. This one is not well formed in my mind (what, and the others are ?!?!?!). Other questions are why is there no British Google, Microsoft, etc. I suspect the answer is the obvious one, and obvious answers rarely make for good books. Here are 200 pages telling you that what you thought was obvious IS in fact obvious.

7. A mistake carried to perfection
The title comes from Edsger Dijkstra's quote about the programming language APL. The computing world is full of many strange byways - languages and technologies that have stood the test of time and have enthusiastic adherents but have never made it into the big-time. One of the most bizarre in some ways is APL. In the late 50s its inventor Ken Iverson invented his own notation for teaching mathematics to graduate students, then in the early 60s turned it into a programming language, which in its pure form requires a keyboard with special characters. In some ways it prefigured the spreadsheet, and found particular favour for use in the sort of financial wizardry that has turned out to have served us so well.
The aim of the book would be to provide a technical and sociological history of the language and its use. What does it feel like to be an enthusiastic supporter of a minority language?

8. I'm sure there was another one
Maybe I will remember after walking the dogs.

9. Biography of Stafford Beer
Wouldn't want to write this one myself for a variety of reasons. Notably that there are many enthusiastic Beerists and I am not one, really. Also, would have to read all his works from cover to cover, and he is actually a very turgid writer. Also, the thing everyone is interested in is the Chilean phase and a book is coming out about that next year which will, I suspect, be very good, given that I have read large chunks of the Ph. D thesis it is partly based on, and frankly without further refinement I would still rate it as the best non-fiction book I have read this year.
Actually, a book of some of his writings is coming out with a mini-biography in it, which may be enough.

10. Biography of Ross Ashby
Don't want to write this one myself either. The world will not see his like again.


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