Sebastian Kirsch: Blog

Friday, 02 December 2005

Wannabe fodder

Filed under: — Sebastian Kirsch @ 01:48

A friend of mine asked me about books today – specifically, which books would make a worthwhile addition to a hacker bookshelf. Of course, there are lots of them, so I will have to tackle this subject in installments. The first installment today will be about wannabe fodder.

Wannabe fodder isn’t about hacking, or about stuff hackers enjoy. It’s about other hackers. It’s what wannabe hackers read for role models.

[cover]Steven Levy: “Hackers” chronicles the development of the hacker culture. It starts with the original hacker culture at the MIT (at the AI Lab and the Tech Model Railroad Club), introducing figures like Marvin Minsky, Richard Greenblatt, Bill Gosper or Tom Knight, including the development of the Lisp Machine. The second part of the book describes the development of the culture centered around home users with small 8-bit computers like the Altair, which eventually led to the development of the Apple ][, including a description of the Home Brew Computer Club. The last part is about the rise of computers as gaming machines and the resulting culture. An epilogue depicts Richard Stallman as “the last true hacker". “Hackers” was published in 1984, and of course doesn’t include the recent rise of hacker culture in the form of the open source movement. It is a good documentary about the early hackers, and about where the culture comes from.

[cover]Clifford Stoll: “The Cuckoo’s Egg is the story of Stoll’s hunt for German hacker Markus Hess, told in his own words – a hunt which began with a 75 cent accounting error and ended with Hess’ capture and conviction. Stoll describes his run-ins with several three-letter agencies (CIA, FBI, NSA etc.) and his explorations into the maze of computer networks and phone systems, in order to trace the intruder from his systems to his lair. This book, published in 1989, is one of the first and few first-hand accounts of a hacker hunt. While the perception of a need for computer security measures has since increased, it is still a worthwhile read – because it reads like a well-written thriller.

[cover]Tracy Kidder: “The Soul of a New Machine” is a documentary about the development of the Data General Eagle, an 32-bit minicomputer which was a direct competitor to DEC’s VAX and was released in 1980. It is written from the perspective of a complete outsider (Kidder’s previous books had been about building a house or about a class of schoolchildren.) While Kidder tries to get the basic facts about the machine right, the main strength of this book is the portrayal of the people behind this new computer: The engineers and designers behind it, their personalities, their relationships and their working styles.

[cover]Douglas Coupland: “Microserf” is the first fictional book in this series. Published in 1995, it is a story for the dot-com era, about the dream of the successful start-up. Daniel Underwood, bug-tester at Microsoft’s building seven, quits the company to form a start-up with several of his co-workers. They work on OOP!, the quintessential eye-candy software, a software for the boom. While developing this new product, the group itself develops and matures: From their “larval stage” in the corporate environment, they set out to discover love, sex, freedom, self-determination, and ultimately themselves.

[cover]Karla Jennings: “The Devouring Fungus” is a collection of folk tales, anecdotes and legends of the computer age. It sometimes reads like an amalgam of stories from alt.folklore.computers, and indeed a collection from this newsgroup is a good substitute for this book. I mainly included it here for the sake completeness.

This entry concludes my list of wannabe fodder. The next installment will follow when I have culled a few books from my bookshelves; I intend to focus on books not about hacking itself, but about things that tend to interest hackers. One of them I already featured recently: The Computational Complexity of Nature by Gary William Flake. But I think I have a few others that I have not written about yet.

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