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Go To The Story Of The Math Majors, Bridge Players, Engineers, Chess Wizards, Scientists And Iconoclasts Who Were The Hero Programmers Of The Software Revolution Hardcover – October 16, 2001

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Editorial Reviews

Amazon.com Review

Exploring the strange and hazy days before nerds ruled the earth, tech writer Steve Lohr's Go To is a great introduction to the softer side of the information age. Sure, he covers the Microsoft and Apple stories, but he also digs deeply to learn how Fortran and Cobol were developed and ventures into the open-source world. Lohr is adept at personalizing the process of software development, which serves to make some of the business and technical decisions more comprehensible to the lay reader.

IBM conducted yearly employee reviews called the "Performance Improvement Program," or Pip, for short. The Pip, like most such programs today, followed a rigid formula, with numbers and rankings. [John] Backus decided the Pip system was ill-suited for measuring the performance of his programmers, so his approach was to mostly ignore it. One afternoon, for example, he called Lois Haibt over for a chat. He talked about her work, said she had been doing an excellent job and then pushed a small piece of paper across the desk saying, "This is your new salary," a pleasing raise, as Haibt recalled. As she got up to leave, Backus mentioned in passing, "In case anyone should ask, this was your Pip."

Since he starts early in the history of the field, Lohr gets to share some of the oddities of the days before programming was professionalized. Developers were kids, musicians, game experts, and practically anyone who showed an interest. Many readers will be surprised and delighted to read of the strong recruitment of women and their many contributions to software development--an aspect of geek history that has long been neglected. Go To should break down a few preconceptions while building up a new respect for the coders who guided us into the 21st century. --Rob Lightner

From Publishers Weekly

About a year too late to take advantage of public hunger for behind-the-scenes computer biz accounts, New York Times technology correspondent Lohr's learned narrative never quite engages the reader. A series of portraits describes the unique band of outsiders who commanded the lumbering, room-sized computers of the postwar era. These men played a headache-inducing game called "blind chess," built their own stereos and could detect a computer malfunction by sound. The book kicks off in the 1950s at IBM, where several of these visionaries were trying to make the company's computers more efficient. Men like John Backus (one is tempted to call him the Henry Ford of programming) created the Fortran assembly language to automate and make the programming process more efficient. With increased business interest in computers in the late 1950s, John McCarthy, who cofounded MIT's artificial intelligence lab in 1959, initiated Cobol, or Common Business Oriented Language, to allow people to program using English. After the 1960s, software started getting more headlines from an industry and a press that previously only cared about new and faster hardware. By the 1980s, companies like Microsoft were creating business empires out of programming. For a book that claims to tell the story of the software revolution's instigators, it's frustratingly short on characterization. There's the occasional flourish, like the description of Charles Simonyi who did groundbreaking work at Xerox's PARC research facility and essentially created Microsoft Word showing up for debugging sessions in a special "debugging outfit": a black net shirt and translucent skin-tight black pants. But this account of reputed fringe visionaries lacks flash and loopiness. National author tour.

Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information, Inc.

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 264 pages
  • Publisher: Basic Books; New edition edition (October 17, 2001)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0465042252
  • ISBN-13: 978-0465042258
  • Product Dimensions: 9.5 x 6.4 x 0.9 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.2 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 4.3 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (20 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,788,345 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

78 of 83 people found the following review helpful By Jean J Bartik on January 3, 2002
Format: Hardcover
I enjoyed this book very much. It was certainly true that nobody could predict who would be a good programmers. I must confess that I picked those who were intelligent and enthusiastic. It sounds like a jungle out there.
Now for my hot buttons. Why am I not surprised that the history is wrong? It's because the author suffers from the writers' "Curse," assuming things written down are the truth. Johnny von Neumann never even saw the ENIAC until its design was fixed and the system almost built. He did consult with Dick Clippinger and his programming group from 1947/48 when they turned the ENIAC into a stored program computer. At that time, people were presenting various instruction sets for computers and von Neumann suggested a one-address code with a central accumulator architecture for the ENIAC, which we used. My group at the Moore School was under contract to do the ENIAC programming. Actually, Dick Clippinger, Adele Goldstine and I, with some help from DRs. Giese and Galbraith from Aberdeen did the actual programming.
When von Neumann saw the ENIAC, he was excited by it and, learning Pres Eckert and John Mauchly and their design team were already at work on EDVAC, the ENIAC successor, he asked if he could sit in on the meetings. The EDVAC design already included the stored-program concept. See Eckert's interview with Peter Vogt for the Smithsonian Computer History Project. After a number of meetings, von Newmann skipped some meetings to go to Las Alamos, but he sent back the article, which Pres and John took as an internal document, summarizing the content of the meetings. Other members of the team were not allowed to write or talk about it. Goldstine, who was the Security Officer distributed von Neumann's article widely. Some Security Officer.
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29 of 29 people found the following review helpful By A Customer on November 4, 2001
Format: Hardcover
For a narrative history of computer programming, from the pre-Fortran days to the present, this book does a remarkably good job. It describes in vivid, readable fashion the people, the period, and the problems they solved. It also gives the reader a real sense of the kind of creativity involved in programming, the excitement and what it takes. The book is filled with neat historical tidbits (from the origins of the term "beta" to the notes of Charles Simonyi, a Xerox PARC refugee who joined Microsoft, to Bill Gates, laying out much of that company's plans for the next 20 years). For anyone interested in software, and the extraordinary cast of characters behind the technology, this book is a clear, well-written, authorative survey. It covers a lot of ground -- and it it does it awfully well!
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10 of 10 people found the following review helpful By A Customer on December 2, 2001
Format: Hardcover
This is a good book on the technical and intellectual development of system and utility software from Fortran days to now. It is meant to be an overview of some of the high lights of the technical developments and most interestingly the people and the players. The author purposefully does not cover application software and the huge effort and development in those areas whether in a product like Mathematica or in computational fluid dynamics programs. He certainly captures the flavor of the operating system, compiler, and utility developments that were so critical to progress in computers.
The book is strongest where the history is known. Present day developments such as Linux and open software along with the key people are discussed in the last chapter, but no one knows yet what importance will come of that, and this is left up in the air.
There are not that many books that range over the history of software development as this one does. Lohr is no gee whiz amateur; this is a solid professional job where the flavor of a development is really captured (at least in my view). One can just imagine how the development of Fortran opened up immense possibilities in simulation and modeling. Good word processors had broad applications and made life much easier for all of us. Lohr chooses his subject and enlivens it.
He discusses the people involved in many of the developments with a varying degree of detail, so we capture some of the flavor of the personalities. This is done well without giving us ranging biographies or too much psychoanalysis. This is a book well worth reading.
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18 of 22 people found the following review helpful By Michael F. Maddox on February 17, 2002
Format: Hardcover
As a lifelong software developer, avid history buff, and now, author, I looked forward to this book, as it combines the two great loves of my life - code and history. Unfortunately, my "third" hat - author - causes me to cringe in abject horror when reading this volume. The book DOES contain interesting information about the evolution and revolutions of software development. The book DOES contain interesting anecdotes and quotes of the software gods. The book is just NOT a very good read. Programmers: read Stroustrup's DESIGN AND EVOLUTION OF C++ if you want to see inside the mind of a software god. Everyone else, read someting more like HACKERS (Levy's - NOT the movie) for a powerful, interesting historical tome.
Written from the perspective of a journalist, each chapter iterates and re-iterates through the basic definitions of computer terms: what is an operating system?, etc. Far too much explanation, and far too little exploration of the topics creates a read much like that of a high school history report. There is none of the emotion and excitement of Levy's HACKERS, nor, in fact, any of the depth. This seems to be the result of a long research project, spent reading articles and gleaning quotes, rather than a labor of love.
Certainly, the author covers the subject, but in a manner so devoid of personal interest, it leaves all but the most concerted reader cold. Personally, I've picked up the book three times now, and skimmed various chapters. I'm finally giving up; the book is just not a good read, no matter the hard work and good intentions.
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