New: Book Report: On the Edge

I posted that link to that "Another Bubble" video. Computer nostalgia is easy, you don't have to look back, the past just keeps coming back. That viper Wade Randlett who spread lies about the "New Economy" back during the Gore campaign (you remember the "new economy"--the bubble before the dot-com bust) is raising money for Obama now. How could Wade Randlett come back? How could he still be around? Not all of these people are still around. Some of them are still around. Chuck Peddle is still around. Chuck Peddle's not a viper, though. But he does get mentioned in the book On the Edge (by Brian Bagnall), as you might expect--this book is the story of Commodore Computer, and Peddle was the main designer on the 6502 chip. This book was a lot of fun.

I enjoyed this great moment in the history of technical documentation:

The [MOS 6502] microprocessor would be useless to engineers without documentation. Peddle recalls, "We were coming down to launching and my buddy [project manager-ish Petr Sehnal] kept telling me, 'Chuck, you've got to go write these manuals.' I kept saying, 'Yeah, I'll get around to it.'" Peddle did not get around to it.

With Wescon rapidly approaching, and no manual in sight, Sehnal approached [boss] John Pavinen and told him, "He's not doing it."

"John Pavinen walked into my office with a security guard, and he walked me out of the building," recalls Peddle.

According to Peddle, Pavinen gave him explicit instructions. "The only person you're allowed to talk to in our company is your secretary, who you can dictate stuff to," Pavinen told him. "You can't come back to work until you finish the two manuals."

Peddle accepted the situation with humility. "I wrote them under duress," he says. Weeks later, Peddle emerged from his exile with his task completed. The 6502 would have manuals for Wescon.

I'm a technical writer. I've worked with many engineers. About 25% of engineers can write great documentation no problem; about 50% can muddle along. And then the other 25% of engineers... can't muddle along. I guess that's been a problem for a while.

I grew up with Apple ][ computers. I always thought that Apples were more popular than Commodores. This book says that that was a lie--well, eventually Apple overtook Commodore, but had claimed to be #1 long before that.

Engineer Bil Herd passed along a fun story about physical security, policy, and reality:

A few weeks before CES, Herd began running into unforeseen obstacles. "The security guards started locking the door," recalls Herd. "They got a rule that said all lockable doors should be locked on Friday nights. So Saturday I walk in, and I can't get in my office. There is no key for this door because it's new construction, and the contractors haven't dropped the keys off yet."

With the deadline near, Herd decided to go around the problem. "I had to get back to work," says Herd, "You can't keep me from working. So I climbed over the ceiling and got all gucky doing it, and cut myself, but I opened the door and got back to work."

To prevent the incident from reoccurring, Herd posted a friendly notice on the door. "I put up a sign that said, "Please do not lock this door. There is no key for it," he recalls. " Well they locked it again. We went through three layers of notes. The first one was real polite, the second one said, 'Look, you locked it again. We can't get in to do our jobs. Don't lock this door, there is no key.'"

Herd thought his notes explained the situation clearly, but the instructions from management overruled Herd's pleas. "Well, it got locked again," says an exasperated Herd. "Somebody came and got me and said, 'I can't get in the room. It's locked again.' This is the room they had given me to do the project, so it's my room as far as I'm concerned."

Herd stormed towards the locked door in a rage. The previous times, he had gone around the problem. Now he decided to go through the problem. "I punched a hole through the wall to where you could reach in and unlock the door," recalls Herd. "I just barely missed a light switch on the other side, which would have split my knuckles wide open."

Herd thought the faceless battle of wills had come to a climax, but it continued. "They locked the door again!" says Herd. "You had to reach through the hole to unlock the door and you would get your arm all chalky and everything. Finally, I had to write a note that said, "Look, assholes. There's a fucking hole in the wall next to the door. You can stop locking it now."

I liked this comment, though I think many readers might think it requires some explanation:

One powerful feature that distinguished the Amiga operating system from the Macintosh was the Command Line Interface (CLI). This allowed users access to powerful DOS commands using command line arguments.

I learned that chips for the NES system were basically tweaked 6502s, just changed enough to dodge patents.

This is a wonderful book to read. It's long--Commodore tried many computer projects, and this book discusses many of them. It jumps forward and backward in time to cover the various arcs. But there are plenty of cool little anecdotes and strange characters. Check it out.

Labels: ,

Posted 2007-12-09