January 3, 2007
I happened upon Russ Walter's Secret Guide to Computers around 1993. By then it was already up to the 18th edition.
The first version of The Secret Guide was published in 1972 as a self-typed 17 page pamphlet. The latest edition is a hulking 607-page monster, a rambling, zine-like love letter to the computer, in all its manifestations and permutations.
Russ alternately compares computers with drugs:
Computers are like drugs: you begin by spending just a little on them but soon get so excited by the experience -- and so hooked -- that you wind up spending more and more to feed your habit.
Your first computer experience seems innocent: you spend just a little money for a cute little computer. You turn the computer on, tell it to play a game, and suddenly the computer's screen shows dazzling superhuman colors that swirl hypnotically before you. You say "Wow, look at all those colors!" and feel a supernatural high.
But after two months of freaking out with your new computer, the high wears off and you wonder, "What can I buy that's new, exciting, and gives me an even bigger high?" So you buy more stuff to attach to your computer. Now you're in really deep, financially and spiritually. You're hooked. You've become addicted to computers. Each month you return to your favorite computer store to search for an even bigger high -- and spend more money.
Look at me. I'm a typical computer junkie. I've already bought 50 computers, and I'm still going. Somebody help me! My computers have taken over my home. Whenever I try to go to sleep, I see those computers staring at me, their lights winking, tempting me to spend a few more hours in naughty fun, even if the sun's already beginning to rise.
.. and sex:
The computer will fascinate you. It'll seduce you to spend more time with it. You'll fall in love with it. You'll start buying it presents: exotic foods (expensive programs to munch on), new clothes (a pretty little cloth cover to keep dust off), and expensive jewels (a printer and extra disks).
Then the computer will demand you give it more. While you enjoy an exciting orgy with your computer and think it's the most joyous thing that ever happened to you, suddenly the computer will demand you buy it more memory. It'll refuse to continue the orgy until you agree to its demand. And you'll agree -- eagerly!
The computer's a demanding lover. You'll feel married to it.
Marrying a computer is much groovier than marrying a person: computers are good at "getting it on" (they make you feel all electric and tingly) and they never argue (they're always ready to "do it", except when they "have a headache").
I wanted to call this book "The Sexual Guide to Computers" and put a photo of my computer wife and me on the cover; but some communities still prohibit mixed marriages. That cover would be banned in Boston, which is where I've lived. So I had to play cool and say "Secret" Guide to Computers. But here's the real secret: this book's about sex.
If you marry a computer but already married a human, your human spouse will call you a "bigamist" and feel jealous of the computer. Your marriage to that human can deteriorate and end in divorce.
Although it's primarily targeted at novices, I distinctly remember one long winter weekend in 1993 reading the entire Secret Guide cover to cover. Walter's enthusiasm rings through on every page. His no-nonsense, no-budget D.I.Y. ethos outshines any number of polished, soulless commercial books.
Russ is an interesting guy; there's a tiny biography of him in the "about the author" section of this book review. He also has the audacity to publish his phone number in the book, and encourage people to call him, any time, 24 hours a day, with only a few strings attached. His book is completely self-published under a "copywrong" license. And evidently he means it: he offers a CD-ROM version with the unabridged text of the book in various formats, and semi-authorized versions of the text are available all over the web. One of them even has a higher pagerank than his own site, which is unfortunate.
For more enthusiasm that borders on insanity, Russ offers samples of his books online. You can read 24 chapters of the latest edition of the Secret Guide, as well as 24 chapters of the companion book, Tricky Living. I long ago gave away my copy of The Secret Guide, but Russ is exactly the kind of guy I love to support, so I'll be buying new copies.
I also own Charles Petzold's book, Code. It's another love letter to the computer.
Instead of a long, rambling love letter, Code is a collection of elegantly written sonnets. It has an austere layout, filled with beautiful diagrams. It gently guides you through the history of the computer, at the lowest and most fundamental levels, from Babbage to modern times. But it's no less urgent in its affections.
Code is at the absolute opposite end of the spectrum from The Secret Guide. There probably aren't two more different books on the planet. But if you think Charles Petzold's any less dedicated than Russ Walter, consider this: which one has a Windows tattoo? And which one wears a witch's hat and red kimono over a monk's habit and roller skates to computer fairs? Well, sometimes love makes you do crazy things.
I'm with Petzold and Walter. If loving computers is wrong, I don't want to be right.
Posted by Jeff Atwood
I can't help but try to deduce the blue dots on the cover of Code. If anyone recognizes it, could you fill me in?
I've owned three of editions of TSGTG over the years, beginning with IIRC the fourth edition. In the early 80's, I actually took Mr. Walter's up on his offer once and called him. I don't recall the technical details of my problem, but I was trying to hack something with one of my odd Atari 400 (ugh, membrane keyboard... *shudder*) game controllers. Though I had apparently interrupted him doing something, and despite someone (his wife?) running a vacuum cleaner in the background, Mr. Walter was patient, polite and helpful. Though he couldn't solve my answer my problem directly, he did steer me towards a magazine issue that contained the answer.
Wife? She might be even more interesting, married to this guy.
Great find. Truly speaks to the hobbyist in me. I'm going through this phase right now, thanks in part to your blog. I went dual monitor (would go triple if I had more desk space), playing with VMs, etc.
I doubt however any new computer users would be motivated to read the Secret Fun book. Even reading the "How to shop" page is full of arcane information (Nothing about Internet auction or price comparison sites?). I can only imagine say young (geeky) kids without a computer of their own (or grounded from the Internet), reading this book and local computer papers (ComputorEdge, for example), dreaming of building their own box. And of course the year would have to be around 1990-1996.
Off topic: BTW, though the post title seems to be based on a popular song:
I am forever reminded of the movie Coming to America: "If loving the Lord is wrong, I don't wanna be right." Absurd hilarity!
Piyo, it's true that the Secret Guide never fully made the transition to the era of the internet. The original intent of the Guide was to be a compendium of computer arcana in a pre-internet era.
It's also odd that another semi-rogue website ("not associated with Russ Walter", yet "reprinted with permission") has a higher pagerank than the official one.
How wonderful that we can learn so much about Russ and Petzold. What about Jeff? You still haven't responded to my tag. 5 things man! 5 things! That's all!
I'm going to pollute your blog with my comments until you comply! ;)
By the way, I think the comparison to drugs wears off here:
But after two months of freaking out with your new computer, the
high wears off and you wonder, "What can I buy that’s new,
exciting, and gives me an even bigger high?"
I don't necessarily buy into that "Gateway Drug" theory.
I have to be honest, I link you more often than any other blog because your passion for what we do shines through. I don't wanna be right either.
That's because you're doing it wrong.
I'm always feeding my habit by purchasing some new computer tcotchke: a desk, a mouse, a video card, a motherboard, a bit of software. Or, maybe you don't spend money, but time, by "contributing to open source projects", or "posting on your blog".
p.s. Don't hold your breath on the meme propagation. If I get to it, it'll probably be months from now.
You misunderstood. I agree on the technical front. Buying one piece of computing leads to more and more tech purchases. I'm just not convinced of the other side of that analogy. That soft drugs necessarily leads people to harder and harder drugs. For some, it may be true. But thinking back to all the potheads I knew, they were too busy eating Doritos to keep seeking out a better fix.
p.s. I'm holding my breath and my face is turning blue. ;)
The main problem with loving computers is that it gets the screen all sticky.
I have never read the book, but I have a liquid cooled dual opteron w/ 4Gig and growing. It's the quietest computer I've ever owned.... it has had two video card cooler leaks. I've modded the video cooler and replaced the block with my south bridge cooler to keep it from leaking. I've fried up one motherboard in the process.... How long until my wife leaves me. Will I ever go back to air cooled?
I was given a copy of The Secret Guide To Computers by Russ Walters back in the late 70s and have been getting them ever since. The guy has a seemingly insatiable appetite for anything to do with computers and is happiest when dispensing that knowledge and he does it a style that is fun to read as well as educational. I know for a fact that he and his books have introduced quite a few people to the world of computers and computing. They have also helped people like my mother and father better understand just what the white box and "funny typewriter" do.
I read the 13th edition. It is everything a computer book should be. It didn't push any platform or language, instead it cut to the fundamental concepts in each platform and language.
Russ Walter is one of my heroes.
Russ Walter replied via email to this post and gave me permission to paste his response in as a comment:
I looked at your blog and have 3 comments. I'll start with the briefest.
You mentioned the 18th edition, but your photo shows the 14th edition.
So to prove I'm a coder I should get a Windows tatoo? Wouldn't a Linux Penguin tatoo be cooler? How about a Python? Or a Python with a Ruby in its mouth? Or a Big Mac whose hamburger patty is replaced with a 24-inch Mac LCD screen covered with Unix commands? Or how about "Windows is for GUI WIMPs"?
You know better than I do: tell me what's cool to tatoo.
Several decades ago, one of my students gave me a T-shirt saying "Byte my ASCII"; I used to run through Boston while women would come up to me and ask, "Bite my what? And why is 'bite' spelled wrong?" We computer folks had a lot of explaining to do, back then.
Several people posted comments that "The Secret Guide to Computers" hasn't quite kept up to date, and that some of its info seems unbalanced, and that I never seemed to really adapt to the Internet age. Actually, I've never really adapted to ANYTHING.
Back in the early 1960's, when I was in high school, my dad said he heard computers would be a good field to get into. I told him I had no interest in machines: I was interested just in pure math, not in things that involved being a mechanic.
Years later, when I capitulated to computers, my tastes still stayed several years behind the hoopla. Even today, I prefer GWBasic over QBasic, prefer QBasic over Visual Basic, prefer all Basics over Java C, prefer floppy backup over CD backup, and prefer Dos over Windows.
I miss the old era, when programming was an intellectual activity ("How can your whole life and personality be simulated by a set of if-then statements?") instead of engineering drudgework ("What subroutine does Microsoft want us to invoke to handle this crap?"). I dislike that we're living in the era of baroque interfaces (where Microsoft hides doohickeys in tiny indecipherable icons and right-clicks) instead of the old easy-to-understand menus. We're living in the era of spastic interfaces, where the user is supposed to keep jiggling his hand until he discovers, by chance, whether the solution is to single-click, double-click, triple-click, right-click, middle-click, Ctrl-click, Shift-click, Alt-click, or give up clicking and use keyboard and spastically try the F keys, Esc key, Enter key, arrow keys, edit keys, and letters. We're living in an age where ridiculous interfaces are tweaked by focus groups instead of being redesigned by brilliant philosophy.
We're living in an age where "using the computer" means just "writing and passing notes on the Internet," and where the computer has become a tool for communicating, not for thinking. We're living in an age where a CD is so cheap to manufacture -- and a Website is so cheap to post -- that companies no longer supply intelligible printed manuals, making the publishing industry go down the tubes and bathroom reading difficult unless your laptop is on your toilet. We're living in an age where any thoughtful idea will be rejected because it's not standard, not familiar. We're living in an age where "prestigious college-level languages," such as C++, use braces, semicolons, and all the other nonsense that English teachers warn are the signs of obtuse writing. We're living in an age where movies are just exercises in generating computer graphics, not generating ideas.
So yeah, I'm old-fashioned. And yeah, the 30th edition of "The Secret Guide to Computers" and the 2nd edition of "Tricky Living" will be updated to be tuned to this modern world. But do I have to pretend I like that?
PapaBoojum said that when he called me in the 1980's there was a vacuum cleaner noise, and he wondered whether that was my wife. I've always done my own vacuuming, and I didn't marry a human until 1998, so the sound must have been from something else nearby. Maybe a dying hard drive? Or folks down the hall?
Also, he said he had "IIRC the fourth edition." Sorry, I don't know what "IIRC" is, and I know he doesn't have the 4th edition of The Secret Guide to Computers. Maybe he has volume 4 of some later edition.
You said I offer a CD-ROM with unabridged text of the book. That sentence is a bit misleading. The CD-ROM contains about 95% of the material, but it omits some photos, charts, and symbols because they were never digitized. (The book was printed on a press that used non-digital methods.)
We let everybody copy everything we do, free, just by following the "free reprint" procedure on page 9, which requires that the reprint tell the reader how to get the original and that the reprint's publisher tell us about the reprint and get our permission (which is granted as long as the reprint doesn't mislead people). Many people followed "free reprint" procedure correctly, but some people did not. Most reprints on the Internet were created many years ago: they're of the 28th edition (or earlier), which are all outdated, but those posts never die. They get high page ranks because they marketed themselves heavily and included more chapters than our own site; but they're inaccurate for today's world, they're still missing the non-digitized parts of the book, and their HTML doesn't duplicate the nicer layout that's in the printed book.
[responding to, "May I post your comments so everyone can benefit from them?"]
Yes, you can put any of my comments onto your blog. You can copy my comments yourself or I can copy-and-paste them for you into your comment box.
I was tempted to post them as comments, but I thought I'd show them to you personally first, since my comments are a bit lengthy and I didn't want to dominate your blog with too many comments about myself, especially since my comments make me seem like a Luddite, or, more specifically, an anti-progressive old fart (even though I'm a Democrat). You had already received complaints from other posters about how there were too many comments about me and not enough about yourself.
For example, do YOU do your own vacuuming, or do you have a wife or a Roomba? Here's an advantage of modern technology: a Roomba is cheaper than a wife, and it vacuums equally poorly. That's why I do my own vacuuming, besides trying to be nice.
Perhaps in the future a physicist could help us vacuum, by punching a black hole into the middle of the room and letting it suck everything in
Very nice of Mr. Walter to respond!
IIRC="If I Recall Correctly" and - not surprisingly - I don't (IDNRC?). I could have ~sworn~ my first copy was the fourth edition... But if the first edition was published in '72 as a leaflet, then obviously I did not have the fourth. The copy I had at the time was used, but it was in soft-back book form not a leaflet.
And the Roomba is a cool product. I just need another robot to turn mine on periodically as I always forget.
I'm addicted to computers and especially to internet. I can't live without connecting and checking what's going on. That's another point or related to computers??
cool stuff. And true as well!
Our computers make us spend more and more just like the author wrote.
My computers have taken over the control of my thinking. I need help. somebody help me! :)
Uhm,... I'm not actually that crazy about computers. It's not that I have anything against them, they're useful alright. But what really gets me going is programming. You know, problem solving, hacking, telling the computer what to do. That turns me on. Why doesn't anyone write beautiful poems to honor computer science?
What's funny is that my "addition" has changed slightly. I don't have the finances to get the latest and greatest after 6 months, so now I'm in the mode of "perfecting" my existing system. What tools can I use to make my system do what I want it to do. What cool widgets can I install, how can I get all my RSS feeds to me without hogging up the CPU or net time. Can I keep a few games, all my music and photos on the hard drive without using up too much space. So instead of buying a new system every 6 months, I'm reformatting it instead! 8^D