May 28, 2007
I've never understood programmers who loved the craft of programming, but were disinterested in the underlying hardware -- the very tool that allows them to practice their craft. I have an unabashed love for computer hardware that borders on inappropriate. I'm not ashamed to admit it.
Warning: this post appeals to prurient interests-- in computer hardware.
If, like me, you love the hardware as much as the software, you're in for a rare treat. I have three books you'll definitely want to have delivered in an unmarked brown wrapper.
In collaboration with the Computer History Museum in Mountain View, California, the book Core Memory: A Visual Survey of Vintage Computers was recently released. I picked up a signed copy at the Maker Faire a week ago.
Core Memory is a virtual tour of the amazing visual storage area of the Computer History Museum. If you live in the area, and have any interest whatsoever in computers, visit this museum. It's awe inspiring-- any computer you can think of is probably represented there. Some of them have been painstakingly refurbished to functioning status, and they do demonstrations periodically. That's how I had the privilege of playing Spacewar on the original vector display of the only known functioning PDP-1 in the world. If you can't make it to the museum, this book is the next best thing to being there.
Robert Scoble recorded a short video of the photographer, Mark Richards, touring the visual storage area and talking about the two year gestation of the book. You can get a preview of the magnificent photography in the book at Mark Richards' website. Boing Boing called them magnificent portraits of the machines' pretty faces and equally beautiful guts, a stunning series of "glamour shots" for nerds. Unfortunately, I can't link directly to the photo section; you'll have to manually navigate to the main menu and select Book: "Core Memory".
Along the same lines, Mark Frauenfelder's book The Computer: An Illustrated History explores the complete history of computing in pictorial style, beginning with the abacus and going all the way to the Aibo and iPod.
It's a broader overview of the computer as a fixture of human culture, filled with similarly amazing photographs. It's a fine companion that fills the gaps in Core Memory nicely. This book review at ArsGeek provides a chapter summary and some additional commentary.
Both of these books focus on computers, although there's a brief chapter on game consoles in The Computer. If you're more interested in the entertainment side of computer hardware, you'll definitely want the German import The Encyclopedia of Game Machines.
It's an absurdly exhaustive reference of every game console-- and every computer that was used for gaming-- ever released. Although the book has a slightly European bent, it truly justifies the title "encyclopedia". If you played games on it, know anyone who played games on it, or just read about other people playing games on it, it's featured in this excellent book along with relevant statistics, a summary, and of course a rich set of high resolution photographs. You can view sample pages in the retroblast review.
As for me, I own all three books, and I recommend them highly. It's the only way to satisfy my insatiable hardware lust, short of the world's largest bank account. Now if you'll excuse me, I need some "alone time" to go read through them.. again. I'm sure you understand.
Posted by Jeff Atwood
I feel your pain, brotha. I still have a VIC 20 in my basement that I. Can't. Let. Go. Of. I still find myself frequenting old-computers.com when I'm waiting for a long query to complete.
Um, but I probably won't be interested buying your copies of those books used!
Well if you want a piece of history I can get you a few chunks of a PDP-11. It's sitting in the bush behind my parents house. I should warn you that 10 Ontario winters probably haven't been to good to it. I'm sure the 10M hard drives were stored indoors so they're in better shape. They needed a forklift to move so shipping costs to you may be a bit of a bitch.
Hey David, I also have my VIC 20 too. Ahhh, memories.
what? no atari 400 users with the membrain keyboard?
hmmm always the underdog :-(
Is that a PDP-8 on the cover of "Core Memory"? That was the first computer I ever touched. It brings back memories of toggling in the boot program, and programming in assembler. It had a whopping 4096 12-bit words of (core) memory.
My dad was a programmer since before I was born (in '78). I had a old, broken card punches to play with. Every year I would trot out the same oral (show and tell in your country, maybe?) with bits of hardware which I passed around the class. Giant disk drive heads, old cards, 128k 8-inch floppies etc. Good memories.
I had a Sinclair ZX Spectrum 48k. I loved it, I literally had tears in my eyes when one day it stopped functioning. I don't know there's something about older computers, that i like way more than the modern ones
"The Digital Pimp, hard at work"
:) Jeff you need some time away from ... yourself apparently :)
I think most modern computers are pretty dull. They have none of the quirky inventiveness of the early microcomputer pioneers. I have fond memories of my Spectrum and BBC Micro but none of the anonymous beige boxes after that. It wasn't until my first Mac that things started getting interesting again.
But, in a similar vein to the books you mention, I liked Gordon Laing's "Digital Retro: The Evolution and Design of the Personal Computer" (http://www.amazon.co.uk/Digital-Retro-Evolution-Personal-Computer/dp/1904705391).
I have no significant interest in agriculture just because food is necessary
I think that's an unfair analogy. To be a programmer uninterested in hardware is to be a farmer uninterested in farm machinery. It's how you produce the fruits of your labor, so it has a fairly direct impact on how you work, and even your productivity.
I'm reasonably sure that is NOT a PDP-8. I remember working on one of them in high school back in the 70's, and I definitely don't remember any sort of silver dial on the front. All of the controls were toggle switches.
Ah, the joys of toggling in the boot program (and then slowly reading through the entries trying to figure out why the silly thing wasn't working THIS time).
I love hardware and all the stuff constantly being rolled out, but also think it's distracting. The time it takes up "to get into" this hobby and maintain it is perhaps ill-justified by the limited (even if useful) benefits gained. After a long time building systems I've simply fallen back to Dell/Apple etc because it simplifies my job as a Software Developer to not to have to deal with or even be interested in the underlying aspects of the hardware. YMMV.
I was hoping to make it to the Maker Faire, I was hoping to speak to some fellow Makers about my home made 3D printer.
Ah well... another time
As programming becomes an increasingly high level or abstraction of the hardware, I believe knowledge and interest in hardware becomes less important for the developer.
Dalton Filho's analogy may be unfair. But what about a graphic artist. They are dependent on computers but contemporary ones do not need to know anything about hardware.
Love your blog by the way! I built my computer but still get intimidated when it comes to hardware.
When I was taking electronics courses in college, I felt the approach was too far in-depth and not enough big picture. I remember when we were discussing op amps, the math was all laid out and I saw how they were modeled, but it wasn't until I actually played with one in a lab that I realized it amplified a signal.
Same deal when it turned to transistors. Lots of math and theory, but what does it actually do? "Voltage at the gate causes current to flow from the source to the drain." Too much jargon. It's a switch! You put voltage here, it turns on. You take it away, it turns off.
That's why I switched from electronics to computer science, and why I enjoy programming but don't worry about the hardware. Logical ones and zeroes are more pure than the quirks and imperfections of the physics of electricity beneath them. I can appreciate how it works, but if you go too deep, you lose focus as to what it does.
As for me, I prefer the mind over the body, simplified abstractions to simple instructions. I have little regret for all the extra things you can get them to do when you get down to the hardware details.
But how can I fail to be nostalgic of the times I spent with Timex Sinclair 1000, Atari 800 (and her younger sister, 130XE) and that classy Amiga 3000? Sure, computers are all high maintenance unsophisticated little time wasters, but I don't see how I could live without them.
for those on the Right Coast (where the Left Lives), Boston has a computer museum, too. may be the first, IIRC. haven't been there in years.
I have fond memories of using a Hollerith hand-operated card punching machine at school.They were punched with Fortran IV code taken once a week to an ICL 1900 system 10 miles away, ran as a batch job, the output handed back to me the next day. If there were any errors I'd have to wait a week to run the program again.
So it seemed amazing when we got a Teletype with a paper tape reader/writer...
re:disinterested / uninterested
I know I'm a pedant but:
How much do you make off of amazon associates?
My Atari survived a flooded basement and still works perfectly to this day. They don't make them like that anymore. If you sneeze on an X-Box, it will stop working.
I believe the cover photo is of an old Data General CPU. Can't tell you the model but I am not happy that I remember working on those systems.
I skipped over this one. I'm a web developer. Even when solving database and application performance problems, I don't have to think about the hardware. I need to think about the performance characteristics of algorithms, but I think a class like SICP is just as valid of a way to learn such things as an assembly class.
I've specialized in the software end of things. If a problem calls for hardware knowledge, I'll learn what's needed or, more likely, bring in some hardware expertise.
I am still nostalgic about the Apple II. I don't currently have much of an interest in hardware, though.
Hey. Am I the only one here who still has the Nintendo Entertainment System as the newest gaming console, or are there other guys and girls with similar lack of new gaming consoles? :) I recently went out and bought a Yobo system to play my nintendo games. I loved TMNT II: the Arcade Game.
I'm interested in the underlying mathematics.
I've still got my original boat anchor IBM PC with a 64K motherboard. I thought I was the biggest gorilla in the neighborhood because I had a 256K card, TWO 5 1/4 inch floppy drives, MS Word that came on two floppies (coincidence?) and a mouse! Dang thing took about five minutes to boot up. Then I got my first hard drive -- a whopping 5Mb! Unfortunately, it went into one of the 5 1/4 drive bays so I've since lost the floppy that came out of there. Oh well. I'm waiting for an offer from the Smithsonian.
I had one, it never went, had a 21" crt. That was a lot of screen back in the nineties. in fact, I had two. they are probably mulching at the local land fill.
You should also check out Digital Retro by Gordon Laing. It's got a ton of machines you never even knew existed. Good Stuff.
I just got this book from Amazon, and it's great. Thanks for the recommendation! (I also have the Taschen "Computers, An Illustrated History" book on order, but it hasn't arrived yet.)
The machine on the cover of Core Memory is indeed a DEC PDP 8/e. I started learning to program on one at school from 1975 to 1979, when we moved into the microcomputer age. Ours had 8 Kwords of, naturally, core memory.
The silver knob was used to choose between the different possible sources of blinking for a href="http://www.catb.org/~esr/jargon/html/B/blinkenlights.html"das blinkenlights/a; a copy of "das blinkenlights" was pinned up next to the machine.
The learning is ongoing.
The Taschen book (Computers: An Illustrated History) arrived. The content is great, but the quality of the photo reproductions is disappointing. It's definitely and noticeably a step below the other books in terms of print quality. Kind of a bummer.
My peeve for literally years has been the lack of good information on the bad people in our communities.
So I did something about it.
I created the website www.religiousfreedomwatch.org
It has been out there for some time but given the sorry state of the world and the ever growing number of terrorists on every corner I thought I would let you know about it.
Hardly a day goes by that it is not voted either the most useful or the most ethical site on the internet.
Do you wonder if the new girl at your office is a Jihad cell extremist, this site will tell you.
You know that guy, you always seem to see at the market? Is it possible he is a child molestor or maybe a porn collector? Well, this site will tell you. Why not look him up just to be sure?
Don't be surprised if I tell you this site is the one used by the FBI, CIA and Homeland Security as well as media to check things. Major airlines express thanks daily that we are there to keep the next group of 9-11 suicide Muslims off their flights. Even though I think religious freedom is important this whole business of Extreme Jihadist Islam is one of the major issues we are facing in the 21st century. I am trying to do something about it!
Now this site is free and it always will be. My company is American Coast Title and it is very profitable. We pay all of the fees for this site and keep it up to date. Not long ago we helped a special task force capture wanted terrorist and fugitive bomb maker Keith Henson!
We’re starting a new project on Patty Pieniadz. You have to watch her. She claims she is poor. But, she, is one of the largest importers of merchandise from China into New England. Is it a cover for an insurgent attack? The site will let you know!
But I have a problem. A bunch of Indonesians are attacking me. I am offering a substantial reward, paid once again by the company, for your help in finding and stopping these zealots.
You can see the details on the reward section of the site. You can also email me at email@example.com or also firstname.lastname@example.org or also email@example.com or also firstname.lastname@example.org or also email@example.com or also firstname.lastname@example.org or also the actual reward email itself email@example.com
Help us stop these guys and put some clean cash in your pocket!
publisher of www.religiousfreedomwatch.org and owner of American Coast Title. Note that I have not only the support of the other owners here namely Frank Berriz and Linda Blood but also that of Stewart Title which is our parent underwriter.
I too work in an IT department and am preparing for a large amount of automation to be implemented into the system within the next couple of weeks. We had to replace our servers (http://www.computergiants.com) though because the old pc’s just where capable of running the new automation solutions or the company’s business software applications. We are transitioning the new servers in this week and should begin setting up network automation within the week after that. It’s actually got most of us really excited too since we are currently spending the majority of our day working on patches for all the bugs we encounter.
I love to learn so I've studied the history of computers. When they first appeared I told everyone they were the future. My first, I stole. It was an 4-bit, green monochrome screen, floppy driven pioneer. I think I saw that they and IBM were competing for dominance, kinda like Blue Ray and whatever lost to them. IBM was 8 bit and this was it's competition. Hell, it worked. Luckilly I was wise enough to steal the disks too so I taught myself by putting in discs and hitting buttons. I finally had to put it to rest when the keyboard quit working. I can't remember what brand it was but it taught me how to type. I found a good site to see the chronological history of computers @ http://www.99er.net/hist1.html
When I went to prison the second time I took computer programming in about 1978, back when back up drives were cassettes, but my hobbies included selling drugs, extortion and murder so I barely finished the algebra part before I was back in Super Max. When I got out I scored a Commodore 64 which was the S***. I thought I'd seen the future. Well, around 2004-2005 I went back to college and took micro processing classes and PC maintenance and repair so I build my own computers out of old peices of junk people give me.
Anyways, It's nice to see others who love the computer as much as me and want to know more about it besides it's great for letters, Googling stuff I don't know, and porn.
As I was searching for the name of my first computer I came across a much better history site on the evolution of micro-processing. The site I cited before was mostly TI history but this one takes you through the years from 69'. http://www.islandnet.com/~kpolsson/comphist/comp1969.htm
Jeff, the matter is actually quite simple - to his own _extent_ of interest.
The same notion can be applied that since we are so interested in using computing hardware we perhaps should learn about Logic Gates, or better, Electronic Engineering that makes it all possible. Maybe we should then exhibit concern and interest in the physics of electricity. You get my drift.
Each person has a finite amount of time to spend and has to decide which _layer_of_abstraction_ he should just be ignore and let be. Encapsulation does not apply to OO programming alone. ;-)
But I can guess which angle you are approaching with that statement - the unhealthy nonchalance with details that _can_ have significant influence in the way we carry out our work. For me, I'd rather have developers gain interest in the workings of CLR and IL first before worrying about hardware operations. It perturbs me greatly to see developers churning away years of code without realising what they are in reality telling the CLR to execute.
Correction, the statement should be read as, "to each his own..."
"I've never understood programmers who loved the craft of programming, but were disinterested in the underlying hardware -- the very tool that allows them to practice their craft."
I don't agree. Nothing implies that because something is important and necessary it should be interesting: I have no significant interest in agriculture just because food is necessary. The means by which our interests are born do not necessarily regard their importance, but certainly our vanity does.
I think "back in the day" (circa 1990 or earlier) programmers concerned themselves about hardware because there was not a lot of it (not much memory, disk space). Nowaways, there is an abundance, so your average programmer doesn't care about that stuff any more because there isn't a stringent hardware requirement to meet. In recent memory, I have never seem a spec that says: You program must only consume X amount of memory at a particular time.
very cool/on the subject post title
I think my idea requires an extrapolation:
The farm machinery may be very important, but more important than that is the air breathed by the farmer, without which there would be no work. Nevertheless, the farmer has probably no significant interest in biology just because phytoplankton produces most of the air he breathes.
If this is unfair, what to say about the psychological implications of importance as a cause of interest? Our interests precede any calculation of importance. The importance of our interests is nothing but our vanity's concern.
I don't deny the idea that hardware knowledge is important for software writers, but to say they should /like/ it is a different matter.