Tal Cohen's Bookshelf: A Collection of Personal Opinions about Books
Read Log, July-August 2020
By Tal Cohen Monday, 28 September 2020
Hackers: Heroes of the Computer Revolution by Steven Levy. I expected much of this by-now-mythical book, and... was rather disappointed. Levy’s writing is flowing and easy to understand, but only if you’re already familiar with the concepts. Reading about Conway’s game of LIFE, for example, would have left me scratching my head badly had I not been previously familiar with it. The writing is also confused at times; for example, the Blue Box is described twice over the span of four pages.

Reading Part One (especially its end), I would not be surprised by any conservative claim that this was “a bunch of communist hippies living off of government fundings.” Yes, they contributed a lot to science, but much, if not all, of their contributions could have been made by the private sector (and in fact, many were), or through more modest funding than what it took to run these super expensive machines. I’m all for funding basic science, but refusing to even teach classes... that’s probably too much. Plus, the folks doing this in a commercial system (people at DEC, for example) don’t seem to be getting much credit, even though I believe their contributions to the science (and to society) are probably just as meaningful, if not more so.

The way Levy hides his presence in the picture (often talking about himself in third person) is annoying and, I feel, inappropriate. For example, it’s clear that he visited Bob Davis in prison, but he uses statements like, “The visitor could make out his words as he screamed them...” — why “the visitor” and not “I”? It’s also evident that Levy interviewed people extensively, in particular Ken Williams, and was present in some business meetings (e.g., Sierra Online’s meeting with Rich and Rich Synergistic Enterprises), but he never says so explicitly. He’s the voice of an omniscient author. Also annoying is the way Levy talks about things in the very recent past (at the time of writing), a year or less ago, with finality, as if they were in the distant past, and not a part of events very much still in motion. For example, Lee Felsenstein “had plans for the next step [...] not long after Osborne Computer went down” (p. 436). “Had” plans? Osborne Computer Company was in real trouble, but still in business, when the book was published, let alone written. So clearly, from Levy’s point of view in time, Felsenstein has plans. This is just an example for a writing style that creates a slightly disturbing atmosphere in the text.

Still, the stories are fascinating and complete a lot of details in a partial picture I’ve had. It includes such anecdotes as what seems to be the first instance of the “Tetris effect” (decades before Tetris was invented) when “Peter Samson, second only to Saunders in Spacewarring, realized this one night when he went home to Lowell. As he stepped out of the train, he stared upward into the crisp, clear sky. A meteor flew overhead. Where’s the spaceship? Samson thought as he instantly swiveled back and grabbed the air for a control box that wasn’t there.” More interestingly, it describes feats of engineering that are awe-inspiring. “Gosper was obsessed for a while with the idea of a robot playing the game [of ping-pong]. The hackers actually did get the robot to hold a paddle and take a good swat at a ball lobbed in its direction. Bill Bennett would later recall a time when [Marvin] Minsky stepped into the robot arm’s area, floodlit by the bright lights required by the vidicon camera; the robot, seeing the glare reflecting from Minsky’s bald dome, mistook the professor for a large Ping-Pong ball and nearly decapitated him.” How on earth did they have a ping-pong playing system, based on video input, running on a PDP-6 machine, operating at single-digit MHz with maybe 1MB of RAM?

The stories also shed light on things; for example, the history of ITS (Incompatible Time-sharing System, the PDP-6 OS with lack-of-security as a built-in feature) makes The Unix Hater’s Handbook so much more understandable. And also, why does HAL (in 2001) sings “Daisy”: “Well before they had a chance to recover... the Altair started to play again. No one (except Dompier) was prepared for this reprise, a rendition of Daisy, which some of them knew was the first song ever played on a computer, in Bell Labs in 1957; that momentous event in computer history was being matched right before their ears. It was an encore so unexpected that it seemed to come from the machine’s genetic connection to its Hulking Giant ancestors (a notion apparently implicit in Kubrick’s 2001 when the HAL computer, being dismantled, regressed to a childlike rendition of that very song).”

Two Greek plays, being the last two parts of Aeschylus’s Oresteia: The Libation Bearers and The Eumenides, both translated to Hebrew by Aharon Shabtai. The ending is a tad too didactic, one might say.

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