% fortune -ae paul murphy

Bill Joy's review of John Markoff's What the Dormouse Said.. is almost as interesting as the book itself.

We may not actually be what we eat (I'm full of steer myself..) but we certainly become what we read, who we play with, and what we work on. In one sense the central message of the book revolves on how some bits of the 60s counter culture influenced what could be done with the personal computer but I think the more profound thing is that the book can help us, today, reconnect what we do in computing with the real history of computing - not the invented stuff put out by Wintel and IBM fellow travellers, but the real thing.

Ever hear of Vannevar Bush? Well he's central to the history of science based computing - and to Bill Joy's review of the book. Here's a bit:

The central figure in Dormouse is Doug Engelbart, whose long-time passion was to build a working version of Vannevar Bush's "Memex" machine. In the 1940s, while working in Washington, DC, as director of the Pentagon's Office of Scientific Research and Development, Vannevar Bush had imagined a "machine that could track and retrieve vast volumes of information," and he wrote about his idea in the July 1945 issue of the Atlantic Monthly:

"Consider a future device for individual use, which is a sort of mechanized private file and library. It needs a name, and, to coin one at random, 'memex' will do. A memex is a device in which an individual stores all his books, records, and communications, and which is mechanized so that it may be consulted with exceeding speed and flexibility. It is an enlarged intimate supplement to his memory."

Engelbart encountered the idea of the Memex while serving as a radar technician in the U.S. Navy during World War II. It took root in his imagination and, in 1950, he had an epiphany, one that guided him and his work for the next two decades. Markoff writes that Engelbart "saw himself sitting in front of a large computer screen full of different symbols....He would create a workstation for organizing all of the information and communications needed for any given project....he saw streams of characters moving on the display. Although nothing of the sort existed, it seemed the engineering should be easy to do and that the machine could be harnessed with levers, knobs or switches. It was nothing less than Vannevar Bush's Memex, translated into the world of electronic computing."

The review is full of interesting things, but, to me, the real insight is into the importance of history - and that makes both it, and the book, well worth reading.

Paul Murphy wrote and published The Unix Guide to Defenestration. Murphy is a 25-year veteran of the I.T. consulting industry, specializing in Unix and Unix-related management issues.