Larry Hosken: New: Book Report: Hackers

It's another Steven Levy book about the history of technology. As with other Levy books, I keep spotting things that I know are wrong, so it makes me not trust Levy to tell me things I don't know. But he went out and did plenty of interviews. Maybe that means you can use his books to get an idea of the personalities of the people involved? If you can get insight into what Lee Felsenstein was thinking... maybe that's more important than getting stuck on mentioned-in-passing facts which turn out to be false. So... the book says that a D&D player rolls an eighteen-sided die; So... the book says that Bill Gates wrote the IBM PC Operating System... So... So... So... So take a moment to snap out of the nerd hissy-fit and keep reading.

There are stories of TMRC pranks here. This book brought a lot of these stories out to the popular culture. Well, the popular nerd culture, anyhow. Same with tales from Homebrew. There also stories from Sierra Online which I hadn't heard, but they didn't seem that interesting. If I learned anything from that section, I learned that Sierra Online's head Ken Williams is a jerk. (I hope that part was wrong.)

OK, I got some things out of the book. An early form of "Open Source" software came from the shortage of computers. The folks who worked on computers at MIT's 9th floor computer lab sat at the same computer—they took turns. And there was a drawer next to the place that you sat that held the programs. Folks would leave utility programs in there so that everyone could use them. And at first, this stuff was all in assembly language—it was open-source by default, since there was darned little difference between the "source" and the binary. People in the lab got into the habit of sharing programs, improving those shared programs. It was a good thing then as now.

A bit of history I liked about Brian Harvey about one-upmanship amongst the early MIT computer hackers:

...But Harvey did not like it when other people were fingered as losers, treated like pariahs simply because they were not brilliant... Harvey recognized that, while on the one hand the AI lab, fueled by the Hacker Ethic, was "a great intellectual garden," on the other hand it was flawed by the fact that who you were didn't matter as much as what kind of hacker you were.

In the first few days when I went to college, I thought I'd double-major in Classics and Computer Science. I attended my first Classics class, and the professor seemed like a snooty jerk. I attended my first Computer Science class, and the teacher was obviously nice, very welcoming and inclusive. I dropped the Classics, stuck with Computer Science. That Computer Science teacher was Brian Harvey. So I guess he was right.

Anyhow, many thanks to Steven Levy for talking to these people, for opening up their lives to the world. I'll try not to get hung up on the details.

Tags: book programming vintage computing
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