Recommended Technology Books (for modern citizens)

(mostly) Technology (some) Math


Chip War (2022) Chris Miller
subtitled: The Fight for the World's Most Critical Technology
464 pages

 highly recommended  for all citizens

An epic account of the decades-long battle to control what has emerged as the world’s most critical resource—microchip technology—with the United States and China increasingly in conflict.

You may be surprised to learn that microchips are the new oil—the scarce resource on which the modern world depends. Today, military, economic, and geopolitical power are built on a foundation of computer chips. Virtually everything—from missiles to microwaves—runs on chips, including cars, smartphones, the stock market, even the electric grid. Until recently, America designed and built the fastest chips and maintained its lead as the #1 superpower, but America’s edge is in danger of slipping, undermined by players in Taiwan, Korea, and Europe taking over manufacturing. Now, as Chip War reveals, China, which spends more on chips than any other product, is pouring billions into a chip-building initiative to catch up to the US. At stake is America’s military superiority and economic prosperity.

Economic historian Chris Miller explains how the semiconductor came to play a critical role in modern life and how the U.S. became dominant in chip design and manufacturing and applied this technology to military systems. America's victory in the Cold War and its global military dominance stems from its ability to harness computing power more effectively than any other power. But here, too, China is catching up, with its chip-building ambitions and military modernization going hand in hand. America has let key components of the chip-building process slip out of its grasp, contributing not only to a worldwide chip shortage but also a new Cold War with a superpower adversary that is desperate to bridge the gap.

Illuminating, timely, and fascinating, Chip War shows that, to make sense of the current state of politics, economics, and technology, we must first understand the vital role played by chips.

(1) I've been working with semiconductors (discreet transistors as well as chips) since the early 1970s so at least half of this book is a rear-view mirror glimpse of the semiconductor industry. But in this book I see a common theme which is this: North American capitalism facilitated the transfer of a lot of technological knowledge from North America to East Asia while making a lot of North Americans extremely wealthy. But there came a point when East Asian companies no longer needed their North American progenitors which caused many North American people outside the semiconductor industry (politicians, military contractors, spies) to claim that East Asian companies stole everything. A few things that jumped out at me were blurbs about Chinese telecom giant, Huawei where the author clearly states that Huawei invests more money in R&D than any other company on the planet. At one point this included hiring 100 consultants from IBM for more than a decade to streamline Huawei operations "making Huawei more IBM-like". While I see nothing wrong with any company hiring and paying consultants, I am shocked when some Western people naively assume that the teacher-student dependency will continuing forever. Like any teacher-student relationship there will come a point when the student will not need the teacher (or the student will become the teacher)
(2) I really don't understand the American CHIPS and Science Act (2022) which will spend more than $52 billion dollars to bring some semiconductor manufacturing back to mainland USA after American-style capitalism enabled it to leave in the first place. America could have saved themselves a lot of time and money by not allowing the technology transfer. One way to do this is with a progressive tax system which would prevent people from becoming extremely wealthy. For example, I never see people at Toyota, Honda, or Hyundai becoming extremely wealthy so those companies never seem to shut down and their employees and supply chains seem seem perpetually busy.
(3) I worked a summer job in 1970 building color TVs at Electrohome in Kitchener. Back then, most North American electronic technicians were comfortable working with vacuum tube electronics ("valves" for you Brits) so allowed the harder-to-understand semiconductor technology to be outsourced to Japan. So even in 1970, an Electrohome color TV was a hybrid of "North American manufactured printed circuit boards containing vacuum tubes" combined with "Japanese manufactured printed circuit boards containing semiconductors". I recall a conversation with one of the onsite engineers where I heard that within the next decade "100% of the stuff would be manufactured in Japan". Thankfully I was able to continue my education then work in a different field but I recall people claiming that Japan had stolen everything. Humans can be quite ridiculous. 

comment: On 2021-02-12 I received these next two books after winning them in an online auction (I know I paid too much for them but hey). Not sure if they should go here or on my Recommended Science Books page but they are full of all kinds of cool nerdy stuff.

Astronomical Algorithms (1991) Jean Meeus
429 Pages (hardcover)

 highly recommended  for all computer nerds also interested in astronomy

Fundamental Ephemeris Computations (1999) Paul J. Heafner
subtitled: For use with JPL data
315 Pages (hardcover) with CD-ROM containing "C" and PowerBasic Source Code

 highly recommended  for all computer nerds also interested in astronomy

Permanent Record (2019) Edward Snowden

 highly recommended  for all citizens

Whatever you previously thought about Edward Snowden will be changed for the better after you read this book. (full disclosure, I had no intention of reading this book until I watched the Oliver Stone movie titled "Snowden" in 2020)

BlackBerry Town (2019) Chuck Howitt

BlackBerry was an astonishing tech success story — two Canadian entrepreneurs created the smartphone, and rode their invention to worldwide success and a company worth billions. As this pioneering book relates, they didn't do so alone. Their innovative ideas came about in an environment of expert academics, a university attuned to tech innovation, an available workforce of skilled enthusiasts, early financial backers and federal government officials lending support. As Howitt learned, BlackBerry's history is a fascinating example of how the right people in the right environment at the right time can go far — and fast. Yet the BlackBerry story resembles another Canadian high-tech achievement — the Avro Arrow fighter jet. The tumble from the heights of success came quickly. The downfall left room for world tech giants to capture the lead in the marketplace BlackBerry had created. Apple, Samsung and others reaped the riches that flowed from the smartphone's invention. But whereas the Avro Arrow was utterly destroyed, Howitt found that the BlackBerry story went in a more positive direction. As a corporation, BlackBerry remains a significant player in the software field. BlackBerry's co-CEOs, Mike Lazaridis and Jim Balsillie, have used their personal fortunes to fund major research institutes in Waterloo. Other BlackBerry employees are involved in a host of tech companies. The Kitchener-Waterloo area remains a dynamic, growing town that fosters innovators and tech-based industry. The BlackBerry story offers many insights into how a resilient region can deal with both success and failure — and stay healthy as a place to live and work. Canada has a lot to learn from BlackBerry Town.

comment: this book also touches on other Waterloo-area success stories including this limited list: Watcom, Maplesoft (Waterloo Maple), Pixstream (reformed as SandVine), MKS, OpenText, Electrohome, Christie Digital, Com Dev, Dalsa, Miovision, Aeryon Labs, Vidyard, Clearpath Robotics, Auvik Networks, and Shopify

Automate the Boring Stuff with Python (2015) Al Sweigart
Practical Programming for Total Beginners

comment: I began my career learning Interpreted BASIC (Heathkit-H8, Apple2, TRS-80, HP-3000). Moving to compiled languages (COBOL, FORTRAN, Pascal, VMS-BASIC, C, C++,  etc.) showed me the true power of computers. Humorously, I am ending my career learning Interpreted Python (er, Python3).

Thank You for Being Late (2017) Thomas Friedman

 highly recommended  for all modern employees and employers

This book was named after its first chapter but should have been named after its second: "What the Hell Happened in 2007?"

Chapter titles:

  1. Thank You For Being Late
  2. What the Hell Happened in 2007?
    • Technological change in the western world accelerated in 2007 but this change was missed by most citizens as they watched the economic meltdown of 2007-2008. What happened was this (short list): Apple released the iPhone, Google released the gPhone now better known by the name Android, Google released Google Maps and Google Street View to their new phone, Hadoop, Facebook, Twitter, GitHub to only name 7 of many. More technical observations can be viewed here
    • comment: I can barely remember what life was like before Google Maps and Google Street View on smart phones
  3. Moore's Law [gets a much needed update]
  4. The Supernova [of inexpensive computer power managed by the cloud]
  5. The Market
  6. Mother Nature
  7. Just Too Damned Fast
  8. Turning AI into IA
    • The minimum requirement for middle-class jobs was the three Rs (Reading, Writing, and Arithmetic)
      comment: people wondering where the Rs are in those words so should read this
      Workers this side of Y2K are also required to use the four Cs (Creativity, Collaboration, Communication, and Coding)
    • quote: Previously, institutions spent much time working on how to optimize returns on financial capital. Now is the time we started thinking more about how to optimize returns on human capital
    • quote: Most good middle-class jobs today - the ones that cannot be outsourced, automated, or robotized, or digitized - are likely to be stempathy (STEM + epathy) jobs. Why? automation has no social skills.
  9. Control vs. Kaos
    • Kaos is misspelt for a reason. This chapter deals with the problems caused by some Americans who continue to promote American power in a 20th century way despite the fact that much of the world is living in a 21st century way. Take countries like Tunisia and Egypt and for example. Despite their apparent lower standard of living compared to the USA, many citizens have cell phones which are being used to acquire information previously unavailable if not blocked. The Arab Spring appeared to be a failure as far as many Americans were concerned. And yet, those middle-east countries have pivoted in a different direction.
  10. Mother Nature as Political Mentor
  11. Is God in Cyberspace?
  12. Always Looking for Minnesota
  13. You Can Go Home Again (and You Should!)
  14. From Minnesota to the World and Back

Comment: if you have any kind if IT job, or are a business person, then you must read this book. There are lots of people (and governments) still purchasing computer solutions based on the computer era before 2007. Just as we saw locomotives move from the age of steam (burning wood then coal) transition to petroleum and now electricity, computers have be morphing from tabulators, to so-called bare metal programs (programs that run without an operating system), to programs running on operating systems (Disk Operating Systems then Network Operating Systems) to programs running on clouds. This last transition has made computer power so inexpensive that now we are in the age of artificial intelligence but not yet artificial consciousness

The Soul of a New Machine (1981/2001) Tracy kidder

 highly recommended

I first read this book back in 1981 but am now (2015) rereading it as a recommendation of the ScienceFriday Summer Book Club.

(corrected) Publisher's Blurb: Computers have changed since 1981, when Tracy Kidder memorably recorded the drama, comedy, and excitement of one company's efforts to bring a new microcomputer minicomputer to market. What has not changed is the feverish pace of the high-tech industry, the go-for-broke approach to business that has caused so many computer companies to win big (or go belly up), and the cult of pursuing mind-bending technological innovations. The Soul of a New Machine is an essential chapter in the history of the machine that revolutionized the world in the twentieth century.


  • I had forgotten that Edson De Castro (founder and CEO of Data General Corporation) was previously the project manager in charge of developing the PDP-8 mini computer at Digital Equipment Corporation (while I remember seeing a PDP-8 in college, it was the precursor to machines I actually worked on like: numerous PDP-11 models; numerous VAX models; numerous Alpha models; and just recently, Itanium)
  • The group tasked with designing a new 32-bit architecture at Data General was called FHP (Fountain Head Project); this group was relocated to Research Triangle Park (North Carolina) while a smaller second group stayed behind in Westborough Massachusetts to design a smaller cheaper machine which only solves the 32-bit address space problem. This group was called EGO which has no official meaning other than each letter being one position earlier in the alphabet
  • EGO is cancelled twice but their third machine is informally named Eagle (sounds close to "ego", right?)
  • The rest of the world knows this machine by its marketing name: Eclipse MV/8000
  • The author mentions the pop-culture relationship between the letters IBM and HAL, the computer that goes berserk in the movie "2001: A Space Odyssey". Let me add another which is VMS (the primary OS for VAX) and WNT (Windows-NT created at Microsoft to run on x86). The primary architect of both was no other than ex-DEC employee Dave Cutler
  • I know of a couple of errors in this book which may come from the people at Data General rather than the author and that is this:
    • VAX not backwards compatible? (I don't think so)
      • the first VAX produced by DEC was the model VAX-11/780 whilst the next two were the VAX-11/750 and VAX-11/730
      • the reason why they were call VAX-11 is because they could run PDP-11 code through emulation. I have proof of this because one of the guys in our shop was always dropping down into RSX-11 mode then running PIP. That all changed when we moved to the VAX-8550 which no longer support PDP-11 emulation mode.
    • 27 boards in the VAX CPU? (I don't think so)
      • DEC knew a lot of customers used third-party I/O boards so provided a lot of adapter cards which would allow a VAX to connect to the peripheral drawer of a PDP-11. These boards might be under the skin but they were not for CPU purposes.
      • VAX was made to be clustered so a lot of new I/O boards appeared to support the CI interconnect
    • P.260
      • correction: TARDIS is the name of Doctor Who's spaceship (this book said that Tardis is his home planet)
  • Data General's Tom West dies
    • (quote: West helped author a report in 1988 recommending that Data General should develop hardware systems using commodity microcomputers, instead of building its own proprietary processor, to run Unix better than anybody else. In other words he was responsible for giving life to the MV/8000 and now proposed killing it. DG CEO Edson De Castro agreed with the proposal and the MV line was run down)
      • now the inquisitive technical historian must read "DEC is Dead, Long Live DEC" where we learn the following:
        • many insiders saw the future (for a time) and so explored VAX machines based upon RISC microprocessors from a company named MIPS Technologies
        • This led to the in-house development of a 64-bit RISC processor named Alpha (many people wonder why they built their own FAB in Hudson Mass rather than outsourcing the work to IBM in the USA or TSMC in Taiwan)
        • DEC upper management convinces Ken Olsen to stick with 32-bit VAX then proceed with development of VAX-9000 (Aquarius) of which less than 50 were sold. DEC is never able to recoup the development costs which were rumored to be close to One Billion Dollars

How Linux Works (2nd Edition 2014) Brian Ward
subtitled: What Every Superuser Should Know

  • the only thing this book lacks is information on LVM (logical volume manager)
  • This book contains useful information I have never seen anywhere else. It is worth every penny.
  • Question: why is it that every really good computer book in my library published by No Starch Press?

Turing's Cathedral (2012) George Dyson
subtitled: The Origins Of The Digital Universe

 VERY highly recommended (a must-have for "computer people") 

In Turing’s Cathedral, George Dyson focuses on a small group of men and women, led by John von Neumann at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, New Jersey, who built one of the first computers to realize Alan Turing’s vision of a Universal Machine. Their work would break the distinction between numbers that mean things and numbers that do things—and our universe would never be the same.

Using five kilobytes of memory (the amount allocated to displaying the cursor on a computer desktop of today), they achieved unprecedented success in both weather prediction and nuclear weapons design, while tackling, in their spare time, problems ranging from the evolution of viruses to the evolution of stars.



  1. This book is mistitled. "Turing's Cathedral" is actually the title of chapter 13 which makes me wonder if the title of this book was set by the marketing department of publisher. Although Alan Turning's contributions to mathematics, science, computing and war-time decryption are covered, this book it mainly about:
    1. John von Neumann and the people surrounding him at Princeton's Institute for Advanced Studies.
    2. How the Institute for Advanced Studies designed and built a computer and (MANIAC) computer architecture (von Neumann) still in use today (albeit smaller and faster)
    3. Why these early computers were:
      • instrumental in creating the hydrogen bomb (they ran simulations in Neutron Diffusion) as well as...
      • early attempts at weather and climate prediction (funded by the Air Force who required better forecasts before committing to bomber missions) as well as...
      • simulations of self-reproducing automata
  2. CPU memory was based upon forty Williamson Tubes
    • 1024 bits stored as dots on the screens of forty war-surplus oscilloscope tubes; as each dot began to fade, it needed to be refreshed. This is not much different than the refresh cycle demanded by modern DRAM technology.
    • Bit Calculation: 40 x 1024 / 8 = 5 KB
  3. Unexpected developments in weather forecasts and climate models:
    • Quote from page 155: In 1945, meteorology became a science while [weather] forecasting remained an art. Forecasts where generated by drawing up weather maps by hand, comparing the results with map libraries of previous weather conditions and they making predictions that relied partly on the assumption that weather would do whatever it had done previously and partly on the forecasters intuitive feel for the situation and ability to guess.
    • World War II, with its growing dependence on air craft [including fighters and bombers,] increased the demand for forecasts
    • Scandinavians helped develop the theory of frontal waves and otherwise lead to the understanding what weather might do next. [These red and blue lines are still scene on today's weather maps]
    • This led to a numerical analysis of weather which was later "computerized"
    • Computer weather analysis yielded to the first climate models (yep, all run in 5k of memory)
    • [During the 1940s and 1950s, computers helped accurate weather forecasts to be expanded from 2 days to better than a week]

The Information (2011) James Gleick
subtitled: A History, a Theory, a Flood

In a sense, The Information is a book about everything, from words themselves to talking drums, writing and lexicography, early attempts at an analytical engine, the telegraph and telephone, ENIAC, and the ubiquitous computers that followed. But that's just the "History." The "Theory" focuses on such 20th-century notables as Claude Shannon, Norbert Wiener, Alan Turing, and others who worked on coding, decoding, and re-coding both the meaning and the myriad messages transmitted via the media of their times. In the "Flood," Gleick explains genetics as biology's mechanism for informational exchange--Is a chicken just an egg's way of making another egg?--and discusses self-replicating memes (ideas as different as earworms and racism) as information's own evolving meta-life forms. Along the way, readers learn about music and quantum mechanics, why forgetting takes work, the meaning of an "interesting number," and why "[t]he bit is the ultimate unsplittable particle." What results is a visceral sense of information's contemporary precedence as a way of understanding the world, a physical/symbolic palimpsest of self-propelled exchange, the universe itself as the ultimate analytical engine. If Borges's "Library of Babel" is literature's iconic cautionary tale about the extreme of informational overload, Gleick sees the opposite, the world as an endlessly unfolding opportunity in which "creatures of the information" may just recognize themselves.

The Linux Programming Interface (2010) Michael Kerrisk
A Linux and UNIX System Programming Handbook

  • (publisher's website)
  • (author's website)
  • At 1500 pages, this book weighs in at 2.8 Kg (6 Lbs)
  • This book contains useful information I have never seen anywhere else. It is worth every penny.
  • this book can also be purchased thru and
  • Question: why is it that every really good computer book in my library published by No Starch Press?

Hacking: The Art of Exploitation (2nd Edition, 2008) Jon Erickson

  • quote: "hacking is the continual pursuit of excellence in technology"
  • contains a cool hacker's boot strap of how to program in "C"
  • contains a cool hacker's boot strap of how to open connections on the internet
    (this stuff was always available in the RFCs but it is always neat when someone takes a different approach to teaching this stuff)

Inside the Machine (2007) Jon Stokes
subtitled: An Illustrated Introduction to Microprocessors and Computer Architecture

  • I wished I had a book like this when I was beginning my career 40 years ago
  • Published in 2007, the second half of the book proves that this publication is more than an introduction.
  • Chapters:
    1. Basic Computing Concepts
    2. The Mechanics of Program Execution
    3. Pipelined Execution
    4. Superscalar Execution
    5. The Intel Pentium and Pentium Pro
    6. PowerPC Processors: 600 Series, 700 Series, and 7400
    7. Intel's Pentium 4 vs. Motorola's G4e: Approaches and Design Philosophies
    8. Intel's Pentium 4 vs. Motorola's G4e: The Back End
    9. 64-Bit Computing and x86-64
    10. The G5: IBM's PowerPC 970
    11. Understanding Caching and Performance
    12. Intel's Pentium M, Core Duo, and Core 2 Duo
  • The first four chapters take you from no knowledge at all through microprocessor basics by building two hypothetical architectures called DLW-1 and DLW-2. Includes:
    • Pipelined Execution
    • What the terms "Scalar", "Vector", and "Superscalar" really mean
    • Superscalar Execution including:
      • Branch Prediction
      • Speculative Execution
      • Register Renaming
      • OOE (Out of Order Execution)
    • Caching (L1, L2, L3) and performance
  • Other chapters cover popular implementations:
    • Intel's Pentium, Pentium-Pro, Pentium-II, Pentium-III, Pentium-4, Pentium-D, Pentium-M, Core, Core2 Duo
    • IBM-Motorola's PowerPC Processors from 601 to 604, 750 (a.k.a. G3), and 7400 (a.k.a. G4)
    • IBM PowerPC 970 (a.k.a. G5)
    • 64-bit technology including:
      • AMD's x86-64 (Intel's EM64T version is mentioned in passing)
      • Intel's Itanium and Itanium2 (a.k.a. IA-64) are mentioned in passing

In search of Stupidity (2003:2006) Merrill R. (Rick) Chapman
subtitled: Over 20 Years of High-Tech Marketing

I read the first edition back in 2003 but the material is still very relevant today.

Chapter titles for the second edition:
  1. Introduction
  2. First Movers, First Mistakes (IBM, Digital Research, Apple, and Microsoft)
    or: IBM emulates Apple by moving to an open architecture; undaunted, Apple moves to proprietary
  3. A Rather Nutty Tale: IBM and the PC Junior
  4. Positioning Puzzlers: MicroPro and Microsoft
  5. We Hate You, We Really Hate You: Ed Esber, Ashton-Tate, and Siebel Systems
  6. The Idiot Piper: OS/2 and IBM
  7. Frenchman Eats Frog, Chokes to Death: Borland and Philippe Kahn
  8. Brands for the Burning: Intel, Motorola, and Google
  9. From Godzilla to Gecko: The Long, Slow Decline of Novell
  10. Ripping PR Yarns: Microsoft and Netscape
  11. Purple Haze All Through My Brain: The Internet and ASP Busts
  12. The Strange Case of Dr. Open and Mr. Proprietary
  13. On Avoiding Stupidity
  14. Stupid Analyses

The Pentium Chronicles (2005) Bob Colwell

"The Pentium Chronicles" describes the architecture and key decisions that shaped the P6, Intel's most successful chip to date. As author Robert Colwell recognizes, success is about learning from others, and "Chronicles" is filled with stories of ordinary, exceptional people as well as frank assessments of "oops" moments, leaving you with a better understanding of what it takes to create and grow a winning product. - A landmark chip like the P6 or Pentium 4 doesn't just happen. It takes a confluence of brilliant minds, dedication for beyond the ordinary, and management that nurtures the vision while keeping a firm hand on the project tiller. As chief architect of the P6, Robert Colwell offers a unique perspective as he unfolds the saga of a project that ballooned from a few architects to hundreds of engineers, many just out of school. For more than a treatise on project management, The Pentium Chronicles gives the rationale, the personal triumphs, and the humor that characterized the P6 project, an undertaking that broke all technical boundaries by being the first to try an out-of order, speculative super-scalar architecture in a microprocessor. In refreshingly down-to-earth language, organized around a framework we wish we had known about then, Chronicles describes the architecture and key decisions that shaped the P6, Intel's most successful chip to date. Colwell's inimitable style will have readers laughing out loud at the project team's creative solutions to well-known problems. From architectural planning in a storage room jimmied open with a credit card, to a marketing presentation using shopping carts, he takes readers through events from the projects beginning through its production. As Colwell himself recognizes, success is all about learning from others, and Chronicles is filled with stories of ordinary and exceptional people and frank assessments of oops moments, like the infamous FDIV bug. As its subtitle implies, the book looks beyond RTL models and transistors to the Intel culture, often poking fun at corporate policies, like team-building exercises in which engineers ruthlessly shoot down each other's plans. Whatever your level of computing expertise, Chronicles will delight and inform you, leaving you with a better understanding of what it takes to create and grow a winning product.

(Bob Colwell was Intel's chief IA32 architect through the Pentium II, III, and 4 microprocessors. He now writes in the At Random section of the IEEE magazine titled Computer.) Quote: We don't live long enough to accumulate enough personal experience from our own mistakes, so we amplify our learning by absorbing the experiences of others. This is the key to the collective wisdom of the human race.

DEC Is Dead, Long Live DEC (2003-2004) Edgar H. Schein
subtitled: The Lasting Legacy of Digital Equipment Corporation

Digital Equipment Corporation achieved sales of over $14 billion, reached the Fortune 50, and was second only to IBM as a computer manufacturer. Though responsible for the invention of speech recognition, the minicomputer, and local area networking, DEC ultimately failed as a business and was sold to Compaq Corporation in 1998. This fascinating modern Greek tragedy by Ed Schein, a high-level consultant to DEC for 40 years, shows how DEC's unique corporate culture contributed both to its early successes and later to an organizational rigidity that caused its ultimate downfall.

  • Introduction
    1. Purpose and Overview
    2. Three Developmental Streams: A Model for Deciphering the Lessons of the DEC Story
  • Part one: The Creation of a Culture of Innovation: The Technology, Organization, and Culture Streams are One and the Same
    1. Ken Olsen, the Scientist-Engineer
    2. Ken Olsen, the Leader and Manager
    3. Ken Olsen, the Salesman-Marketer
    4. DEC's Cultural Paradigm
    5. DEC's "Other" Legacy: The Development of Leaders (by Tracy C. Gibbons)
    6. DEC's Impact on the Evolution of Organization Development
  • Part two: The Streams Diverge, Causing an Organizational Midlife Crisis
    1. The Impact of Changing Technology (by Paul Kampas)
    2. The Impact of Success, Growth, and Age
    3. Learning Efforts Reveal Cultural Strengths and Rigidities
    4. The Turbulent 1980s: Peaking but Weakening
    5. The Beginning of the End: Ken Olsen's Final Efforts to Save DEC
  • Part three: Lessons and Legacies
    1. Obvious Lessons and Subtle Lessons
    2. The Lasting Legacy of Digital Equipment Corporation
  • Appendixes
    1. DEC's Technical Legacy
    2. DEC's Manufacturing: Contributions Made and Lessons Learned (by Michael Sonduck)
    3. DEC, the First Knowledge Organization (a 1991 Memo by Debra Rogers Amidon)
    4. Digital: The Strategic Failure (by Peter DeLisi)
    5. What Happened? A Postscript (by Gordon Bell)

MIT Sloan School of Management Professor Edgar Schein does a marvelous job telling the story of the rise and fall of Digital Equipment Corporation, the former #2 computer maker in the world behind IBM. The business reasons behind DEC's economic failure have been widely reported (missing the advent of the PC, having too many projects going at once, failure to market products effectively, etc.) However, the big question to be answered is why did these failures occur? To quote one passage, "Why did an organization that was wildly successful for thirty-five years, filled with intelligent, articulate powerful engineers and managers, fail to act effectively to deal with problems that were highly visible to everyone, both inside and outside the organization?"

Schein looks at DEC's failure through the lens of its corporate culture, and how it prohibited their executives from making the decisions, and taking the actions necessary to survive. Fans of Ed Schein will know his famous "Three Cultures of Management" paper, in which he describes the "Executive", "Line Manager" and "Engineering" cultures, all of which must exist and be balanced against one another for an organization to survive. Schein argues that DEC was dominated by the engineering culture, which valued innovation and "elegant" design, over profits and operational efficiency. This engineering culture dominated even the top levels of DEC, where proposals to build PCs out of off the shelf parts that were readily available in the marketplace, were shot down because the machines were thought to be junk compared to the ones DEC could build themselves.

That DEC was able to survive for as long as it did was largely attributable to its ability to innovate in a field that was so new it had not yet coalesced around certain standard systems, software and networks. However, as the computer industry became in effect a commodity market, and the buyers began to value price over innovation, DEC found itself increasingly unable, and in fact, unwilling to compete. The engineering culture which valued innovation and required creative freedom, did not want to subject itself to the requirements of being a commodity player which demanded autocratic operational efficiency and control over how resources were allocated.

Although DEC is now long gone, even readers who were too young to use computers at the time of its demise will find familiar truths in this book. As the old saying goes, the fish in the tank does not see the water it is in. Neither do we often see the cultures in which we are ourselves embedded. The real lesson of this wonderful book is to show us how our corporate cultures often prohibit us from doing the right things, even when we can see them clearly. Sometimes culture is most easily visible in the things you need to discuss, but that are simply "not on the table" for discussion.

There are many lessons here too, for companies that seek to innovate new products and services, and how to balance the creative freedom desired by the engineering culture with the "money gene" culture of sound executive management. The names of companies that have failed to realize the full financial benefits of their technical innovations is too long to list here. But the DEC story is a must read for anyone who seeks to balance innovation with sustainable economic success in any organization.

Showstopper! (1994) G. Pascal Zachary
Show Stopper! (2009) G. Pascal Zachary
subtitled: The Breakneck Race to Create Windows NT and the Next Generation at Microsoft

  • The 1994 version of this book is titled "Show stopper!"
  • The 2009 version of this book is titled "Showstopper!"
  • This book should be considered a historical continuation of the book DEC is Dead, Long Live DEC starting with the PRISM project
  • This book is a riveting description of the development of Windows-NT (which later morphs into Windows-2000, Windows-XP, Windows-Vista, Windows-7).  If you enjoyed either one of Hackers or Soul of a New Machine then you'll like this book.
  • Sixty percent of this book is about "DECies" (DEC people at Microsoft including Dave Cutler) with the remaining stuff being about the "Microsofties" including Bill Gates, Steve Ballmer and others.
  • Here are just a few highlights (a few of these items are from the book DEC is Dead, Long Live DEC)
    1. Dave Cutler was the lead designer of DEC's VMS operating system (which ran on VAX) but socially gruff and considered  diamond in the rough
    2. Gordon Bell was Cutler’s patron at DEC who thought that Cutler was the most productive s/w developer at DEC
    3. Cutler wanted to leave Digital in 1981, but Bell convinced him to set up a research arm away from Maynard (which turned out to be Seattle)
    4. When Bell left DEC in 1983 after suffering a heart attack, Cutler lost his patron
    5. Nathan Myrhvold was concerned about three major things at Microsoft: UNIX, RISC, and portability (and kept sending memos to Bill Gates reminding him of these potential problems in Microsoft's future)
    6. Without Bell around to protect Cutler’s group in Seattle, DEC was able to shut it down (other groups had patrons, Cutler’s group did not)
    7. Nathan Myrhvold heard about the demise of Cutler’s RISC project and set up the meeting between Cutler and Gates
    8. Gates only wanted Cutler’s s/w people but Cutler wouldn’t agree to a deal without bringing along his hardware people.
    9. Cutler wanted to bring along DEC hardware people who would help Microsoft change the technical direction of the PC industry
    10. Gates became Cutler's patron at Microsoft (it seems that Cutler always needed a patron to compensate for his gruff personality)
    11. The first version of this multi-personality (DOS, OS/2, Windows, whatever) portable OS was called “Portasys” and ran on a custom PC designed by Cutler’s group which was based upon the Intel i860 CPU. It was never meant to be sold; only used internally to develop a portable OS.
  • There was a whole lot of stuff I didn't know about Windows-NT like: many of the Microsofties wanted to keep/extend DOS (FAT32) or the OS/2 file system while the Decies pushed for the development of a new file system called NTFS.

Hackers: Heroes of the Computer Revolution (1984) Steven Levy

In this context, the term Hacker means someone who develops elegant hardware and software solutions (hacking off anything not necessary) rather than someone who does illegal things. But I had no idea that hacking began at MIT as part of their "model railroad club".

Cryptography (read these 3-books in this order)

The Code Book (2000) by Simon Singh
Subtitled: The Science of Secrecy from Ancient Egypt to Quantum Cryptography

 highly recommended  for people interested in computers, communications, or mathematics
  • Lots of code information from ancient India, Sparta (Scytale), and Rome (Caesar Cipher described in The Gallic Wars) to the present day
  • Information about Hitler's Enigma Machine (used to send orders to the rank-and-file) and the Lorentz SZ40 (used to send messages between Hitler and his generals) 
  • Information about England's Bletchley Park where German codes were broken using Turing Bombes (Enigma) and Colossus (Lorentz)
  • Contains good layman descriptions of advanced technologies concepts like: Diffie-Hellman Key Exchange, DES, symmetric vs. asymmetric keys, RSA, PGP, etc.
  • Appendix-J "The Mathematics of RSA" is the first time I've seen mathematical examples in a layman's text
  • Chapter-8 "A Quantum Leap into the Future" contains the best description I've ever seen on how the keys are exchanged securely using polarized photons.

Applied Cryptography (2nd Edition, 1996) Bruce Schneier
Subtitled: Protocols, Algorithms, and Source Code in C
Eighteenth Printing, 784 pages

 highly recommended  for software developers

The book details how programmers and electronic communications professionals can use cryptography - the technique of enciphering and deciphering messages - to maintain the privacy of computer data. It describes dozens of cryptography algorithms, gives practical advice on how to implement them into cryptographic software, and shows how they can be used to solve security problems. The book shows programmers who design computer applications, networks, and storage systems how they can build security into their software and systems.

Bulletproof SSL and TLS (2017) Ivan Ristic
Second Printing, 542 pages

 highly recommended  for system admins

System admins and some programmers will need this book. It primarily deals with problems associated with Web Servers and Browsers but this should get you over the hump for other technologies.

DSP (digital signal processing)

Understanding the FFT (1995/2000) Anders E. Zonst
Subtitled "A Tutorial on the Algorithm & Software for Laymen, Students, Technicians & Working Engineers"

Understanding the FFT highly recommended  for engineers (both software and electronic), hackers and nerds
  • Subtitled "A Tutorial on the Algorithm & Software for Laymen, Students, Technicians & Working Engineers", weighs in at 180 pages. I wish I would have owned a copy of this book ten years earlier because I would have saved considerable time and money.
  • quote from page 2: "for now we may say that this transform, in its discrete form, provides a mathematical tool of such power and scope that it can hardly be exceeded by any other development of applied mathematics in the twentieth century"
  • four chapters on DFT (Discreet Fourier Transform)
  • six chapters on FFT (Fast Fourier Transform)
  • ten appendices
  • demo programs written in PC-BASIC (a generic term for: MS-BASIC, GW-BASIC, BASICA, QuickBASIC, QBasic, etc.) are sprinkled throughout
  • see next book description for demonstration software

Understanding FFT Applications (1997/2004) Anders E. Zonst
Subtitled "A Tutorial for Laymen, Students, Technicians, & Working Engineers"

Understanding FFT Applications highly recommended  for engineers (both software and electronic), hackers and nerds
  • This first edition of this book (1997) is subtitled "A Tutorial for Laymen, Students, Technicians, & Working Engineers", weighs in at 415 pages.
  • This second edition of this book (2004) is subtitled "A Tutorial for Students, Technicians, & Working Engineers", weighs in at 278 pages, and comes with a CD-ROM
  • Both books contain example programs written in BASIC so that Fourier concepts can be more easily demonstrated to the student

Comment: I recently heard the following rumor about these two books: "someone had scanned them into PDFs then were selling copies online for $10". This might be one reason why you can buy these books for less than $10 each online when the back cover shows $29.95 and 34.95 respectively. Citrus Press (of Titusville, Florida) is owned an operated by a small group of retired NASA engineers. Please help support them by purchasing legal copies from Citrus Press and/or Amazon


The Scientist & Engineer's Guide to Digital Signal Processing (1997) by Steven W. Smith

  • weighs in at 626 pages
  • 40 example programs written in BASIC so that Fourier concepts can be more easily understood
  • very thorough; starts with signals, filtering, sampling, then continues through DSP algorithms, DSP hardware, and DSP applications
  • free PDF download from this site: or purchase the printed book online (better idea)

Digital Signal Processing: A Practical Guide for Engineers and Scientists (2002) by Steven W. Smith

  • weighs in at 650 pages and comes with a CD-ROM

Digital Signal Processing 101: Everything you need to know to get started (2010) By Michael Parker

  • caveat: the book cover contains the phrase "101" while the first page does not. But if you order the book from Amazon, the cover photo there (in green) does not contain the phrase "101" while their ordering link does.
  • DSP is utilized in just about every electronic system or device. DSP is taking one piece of information be it data, image, video, or audio, most likely compressing, sending, and filtering it to another location within your application to appear in the form of a document, picture or video.
  • Like Smith before it, this book is different to most on the market by following a popular applied approach to this tricky subject, and will be the perfect starting point for engineers who need to get into DSP from the ground floor. This book starts with the absolute basics of this integral process.
  • No experience is expected and with no prior knowledge taken for granted, a refresher chapter on complex numbers and trigonometry can be found at the very beginning of the material. Real-world worked examples, reference designs, and tools - including online applets that enable readers to visualize key principles - complete a package that will help engineers who that needs to learn anew or refresh their memory on this essential technology as they move to projects that require DSP familiarity.

Other Stuff

The Telephone Gambit (2008) Seth Shulman

 highly recommended  for budding technologists or anyone interested in telephony

This is a real pager-turner involving many people including Elisha Gray, Alexander Graham Bell and Thomas Edison to only name three of many. The author provides very convincing evidence that Elisha Gray should be credited for the invention of the telephone.

Click here for more details from my telephony page.

Electricity and Magnetism (1900:2011) Elisha Gray

Excerpt from Chapter 1: Thousands who are employed in various ways with enterprises, the foundations of which are electrical, know nothing of electricity as a science. A friend of mine, who is a professor of physics in one of our colleges, was traveling a few years ago, and in his wanderings he came across some sort of a factory where an electric motor was employed. Being on the alert for information, he stepped in and introduced himself to the engineer, and began asking him questions about the electric motor of which he had charge. The professor could talk ohm, ampères, and volts smoothly, and he "fired" some of these electrotechnical names at the engineer. The engineer looked at him blankly and said: "You can't prove it by me. I don't know what you're talking about. All I know is to turn on the juice and let her buzz." How much "juice" is wasted in this cut-and-dry world of ours and how much could be saved if only all were even fairly intelligent regarding the laws of nature! A great deal of the business of this world is run on the "let her buzz" theory, and the public pays for the waste. It will continue to be so until a higher order of intelligence is more generally diffused among the people. A fountain can rise no higher than its source. A business will never exceed the intelligence that is put into it, nor will a government ever be greater than its people.

Quote from Chapter 2: Our world is filled with croakers who are always sighing for the good old days. But we can easily imagine that if they could go back to those days their croaking would be still louder than it is.

Quote from Chapter 7: We are simply seeking after truth. The man who is an earnest seeker after scientific truth cannot afford to pursue his investigations with any prejudice in favor of one theory more than another, unless the facts sustain him, and then he is not acting from prejudice, but is led by the facts. Many people make pets of their theories; and they become attached to them as they do their children; and they look upon a man who destroys them by a presentation of the facts as an enemy. I once knew a lady who became so attached to her family doctor that, she said, she would rather die under his treatment, if necessary, than to be cured by any other doctor. There are many people who are imbued with this kind of spirit not only in matters scientific, but in matters religious as well. Such people are not the kind who contribute to the world's progress, but are the hindrances that have to be overcome.


Practical Electronics for Inventors - fourth edition (2016) Paul Scherz and Simon Monk

What an entertaining diversion from the stuff I usually read. While I previously learned much of this stuff (Ohm's Law, Kirchhoff's Laws, Thevenin's Theorem) when I was a teenager in the 1960s, I found this book presentation of those topics refreshingly different. But this book also covers a lot of newer stuff including discreet semiconductor devices, like diodes, LEDs, transistors, as well as integrated (non-discreet) circuits like chips. Yep this book will get you from "introductory DC-AC theory" to "microcontrollers" in 1056 pages.

p.s. In the 1960s all the electronics books I read only presented classical theory. This theory chapter of this book employs both classical and quantum theory (which are not prerequisites for enjoying the remainder of the book)

The Master Switch (2010) Tim Wu

  • In this age of an open Internet, it is easy to forget that every American information industry, beginning with the telephone, has eventually been taken captive by some ruthless monopoly or cartel. With all our media now traveling a single network, an unprecedented potential is building for centralized control over what Americans see and hear. Could history repeat itself with the next industrial consolidation? Could the Internet-the entire flow of American information-come to be ruled by one corporate leviathan in possession of "the master switch"? That is the big question of Tim Wu's path-breaking book.
  • According to Columbia professor and policy advocate Wu (Who Controls the Internet?), the great information empires of the 20th century have followed a clear and distinctive pattern: after the chaos that follows a major technological innovation, a corporate power intervenes and centralizes control of the new medium--the master switch. Wu chronicles the turning points of the century' s information landscape: those decisive moments when a medium opens or closes, from the development of radio to the Internet revolution, where centralizing control could have devastating consequences. To Wu, subjecting the information economy to the traditional methods of dealing with concentrations of industrial power is an unacceptable control of our most essential resource. He advocates not a regulatory approach but rather a constitutional approach that would enforce distance between the major functions in the information economy--those who develop information, those who own the network infrastructure on which it travels, and those who control the venues of access--and keep corporate and governmental power in check. By fighting vertical integration, a Separations Principle would remove the temptations and vulnerabilities to which such entities are prone. Wu' s engaging narrative and remarkable historical detail make this a compelling and galvanizing cry for sanity--and necessary deregulation--in the information age.
  • The main thesis of this book is The Cycle which describes major technologies which come along every 40 years. For the first 20 years these technologies are open; then the technologies are acquired by large corporations only to become closed; at this point, the big companies actually stifle innovation; here are some technologies discussed in the book:
    • telephone
      • voice communications (local) compete with telegraph (long distance)
      • AT&T is formed as a Bell subsidiary to connect local phone companies
      • AT&T takes over its parent company, Bell Telephone
    • radio
      • started by amateurs
      • RCA (a defense contractor) fights publicly against AT&T's radio division (including AT&T's broadcast company called NBS)
      • NBS is spun off to become NBC
    • film
      • although invented in Europe, was heavily patented by New York companies which fought for a while then formed a "Film Trust" to control what theatres show as well as forcing them to paying a weekly royalty
      • industry outsiders rebel then move their own competing film production companies to Hollywood, California.
    • cable TV
      • NBC and CBS employ the FCC to block the development and implementation of cable TV (and later, satellite TV)
    • computer communications
      • AT&T (and the Bell System in general) used the FCC to block the connection of all so-called "foreign devices" including answering machines (invented by Bell Labs in the 1930s but relegated to the basement until they appear again from foreign markets after the government breaks up the Bell System in 1984), FAX machines, and computer modems.
    • the internet (which is only 20 years old if you start counting from the creation of the web in 1991) was initially blocked by AT&T. Why? AT&T could make more money from traditional "circuit switching" than they could from "packet switching". Translation: blocking innovation to protect their traditional income
    • Apple vs. Google (closed vs. open)
      • like business tycoons of yesterday, Steve Jobs of Apple Computer (re-branded Apple Inc. in 2007) built cozy relationships with AT&T (where Apple introduces new iPhone models) and Hollywood (where Apple sells their music and movies).
      • Apple controls (sanctions or blocks) all apps you want to place on your iPhone. In 2007, Apple decided to block Skype and Google Voice (GV) probably to support their partner, AT&T.
      • Google was worried that their world would be very different if communications where dominated by Apple's iPhone (where Apple could block access to any web destination) so they responded with the idea of gPhone along with the Android operating system (based on Linux) which they provide (virtually for free) to the Open Handset Alliance.
      • Personal Observation:
        • Apple was a purveyor of the open technology religion when they manufactured and sold the Apple 2 line of 8-bit computers (Apple II, Apple II, Apple //e, Apple //c, Apple IIgs, etc.)
        • When IBM was developing their personal computer which would be called the IBM-PC, they copied Apple's "open design" by creating ISA (industry standard architecture) slots which would accept adapter cards made by any manufacturer.
        • Around this same time, Apple decided they could make more money on closed architectures and so were working on machines like the Apple Lisa and Apple Macintosh.
        • Today it is difficult to think about the IBM-PC without thinking about MS-DOS and MS-Windows. But many people think the IBM-PC product line became dominant not because IBM produced it but because the design was open (while at the same time their main competitor was going to closed)
        • Today, IBM is not the dominant player in PCs and this was caused, in part, by IBM moving away from open technology (like ISA) to closed proprietary technology MCA (Micro Channel Architecture) which allowed other open manufacturers like Compaq, Dell, and HP, to jump in.
        • Rule of thumb: open always wins out (eventually)

How the World was One (1992) Arthur C. Clarke

  • From The Dust Jacket:
    Arthur C. Clarke, visionary author of both science fact and science fiction, first conceived of satellite communications in 1945--and twenty-five years later his dream became reality. Now, in this new personal and colorful nonfiction work, Clarke examines the rapid transformation of our society by technology and communication. As the infant field of communications began growing in the early part of this century, so did the boy named Arthur C. Clarke--who watched, wide-eyed, as his small English village was transformed overnight. In his job as the village switchboard operator he once overloaded the circuits, excitedly eavesdropping on his first transatlantic call. From there his involvement grew more and more technical, culminating in his now-famous paper "Extra-Terrestrial Relays," which anticipated many of the developments of the next fifty years. For five thousand years communication never advanced beyond the speed of horse and wind-driven ship--but in the explosive span of thirty years, it changed forever. Newer, faster communication toppled tyranny, won wars, and changed history all the way from the second Russian Revolution to the Gulf war. Here is the story of the stranger-than-fiction mishaps, oversights, capricious acts of fate, and incredible human energy that eventually transformed the earth into our modern global village. Clarke brings unique expertise and a lifetime of experience to How the World Was One. Beginning with submarine cables, through the development of fiber optics and communications satellites, and then projecting far into a future of neutrino, gravitational, and tachyon (faster than light) communications, Arthur C. Clarke shows how these remarkable innovations shaped and changed the earth--and made the world one.
  • Excerpt from Preface, Page 1, Paragraph 3 Nevertheless, Toynbee was essentially correct. Except for a few dwindling tribes in (alas) equally dwindling forests, the human race has now become almost a single entity, divided by time zones rather rather than by natural frontiers of geography. The same TV news networks cover the globe; the world's markets are linked by the most complex machine ever devised by mankind -- the international telephone/telex/fax/data transfer system.
  • Excerpt from Preface, Page 2, Paragraph 2 Despite the linguistic, religious, and cultural barriers that still sunder nations, the unification of the world [by telecommunications] has passed the point of return...
  • Excerpt from Chapter 1, Page 1, Paragraph 3
    This state of affairs has existed for the greater part of human history. When Queen Victoria came to power in 1837, she had no swifter means of sending messages to the far parts of her empire than had Julius Caesar -- or, for that matter, Moses.
  • Excerpt from Chapter 27, Page 200, Paragraphs 3-4 Telstar (and its successor Telstar 2, launched May 7, 1963) showed that active satellites could do everything that had been claimed for them, and with very modest powers -- as long as they were backed up by massive ground equipment. The Bell System had built an even larger horn-antenna for the Telstar than for Echo; the giant ear at Andover, Maine, weighed 370 tons yet was able to track the speeding satellite to an accuracy of better than a twentieth of a degree.
    And that was the big problem. Because of its relatively low altitude (between 950 and 5,600 kilometers) Telstar 1 circled the Earth several times per day; its orbital period was only a fraction of the magic twenty-four hours.
  • Excerpt from Chapter 27, Page 201, Paragraphs 3 ... paradoxically, it takes rather more energy to park [a satellite] twenty two thousand miles up than to land on the ten-times-more-distant moon.
  • Contents:
      1. Introduction (to electrical / electronic communications)
      2. The Coming of the Telegraph
      3. Channel Crossing
      4. A Great American (Cyrus West Field)
      5. Lord of Science (William Thomson a.k.a. Lord Kelvin)
      6. False Start (to laying an Atlantic telegraph cable)
      7. Triumph of Disaster
      8. Postmortem
      9. The Brink of Success
      10. Heart's Content (the first successful cable is laid)
      11. Battle on the Seabed (they try to grapple for a dropped cable)
      12. Girdle Round the Earth
      13. The Deserts of the Deep
      14. The Cable's Core
      1. The Wires Begin to Speak (Alexander Graham Bell)
      2. The Man Before Einstein (Oliver Heaviside)
      3. Mirror in the Sky (the ionosphere is discovered)
      4. Transatlantic Telephone
      5. "Wireless" (Clarke's boyhood recollections of crystal and valve (vacuum tube) radios
      6. Exploring the Spectrum
      1. Beyond the Ionosphere
      2. "You're on the glide path... I think..."
      3. How I Lost a Billion Dollars in My Spare Time
      4. "If you've got a message..."
      5. The Making of a Moon (a reprinted short story)
      6. "I Remember Babylon" (a reprinted short story)
      1. Echo and Telstar
      2. Syncon
      3. Early Bird
      4. The United States of Earth
      5. Satellites and Saris
      6. At the UN
      7. Coop's Troop
      8. Appointment in the Vatican
      9. Happy Birthday, Comsat!
      10. The Clarke Awards
      11. CNN Live
      12. Peacesat
      1. Cable Comeback
      2. Talking with Light
      3. As Far As Eye Can See (like this book's title, Clarke appears to have a sense of humor :-)
        Epilogue: Fin de siecle -- or Dawn of a New Millennium
        Postscript: The Second Russian Revolution
        Appendix A
        Appendix B
  • NSR Comments: I was surprised to learn that many transoceanic telegraph cabling projects were doomed to failure because overly optimistic participants (many of them "investors" and/or "people of title") refused to learn Ohm's Law which was known as of 1827. These idiots were just "playing around with technology" which resulted in the loss of many billions of dollars reminiscent of the losses associated with the DOT COM economic meltdown of 2000-2002. We humans never seem to learn from our mistakes.
  • Another communications quote:
    A hundred years ago, the electric telegraph made possible - indeed, inevitable - the United States of America. The communications satellite will make equally inevitable a United Nations of Earth; let us hope that the transition period will not be equally bloody.
    Arthur C. Clarke, "First on the Moon", 1970

Space Craft, Space Flight, Space Technology

A special treat for Apollo nerds: eagle lander 3d activities

Liftoff (2021) Eric Berger
subtitled: Elon Musk and the Desperate Days that Launched SpaceX

 highly recommended  for all nerds interested in space flight
Five years ago I read "Elon Musk: Tesla, SpaceX, and the Quest for a Fantastic Future" (by Ashlee Vance) who covered Musk's beginnings from Zip2 (which was bought by Compaq before the merger with HP) then PayPal on to Tesla and SpaceX. I've been a space buff my whole life so found the SpaceX part of this book most intriguing because very little has been previously documented. I just finished "Liftoff: Elon Musk and the Desperate Early Days That Launched SpaceX" and am even more blown away by the stories of how Musk kept the program going when Air Force politics drove SpaceX to move the Falcon-1 launch site from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California to an Army base at Kwajalein Atoll. (all space buffs already know that it was the US Army that hosted the efforts of rocket pioneer Wernher von Braun). I am not certain what became of Zip2 after Compaq acquired it but making Musk a millionaire definitely has made the world a more interesting place. Elon Musk will go down in history as a modern day "Howard Hughes". BUY THIS BOOK!

Elon Musk (2015) Ashlee Vance

 highly recommended  for all techies, nerds, and hackers

I am half way through this book and can't believe Musk's accomplishments (so far). This guy is a modern day Howard Hughes crossed with Thomas Edison "simultaneously creating products in three industries" and "employing many tens of thousands" while his peers in silicon valley only talk about their future do-next-to-nothing app for smart phones. ALL TECHIES NEED TO READ THIS BOOK (Steve Jobs should be rolling in his grave; BTW, everyone knows that Steve Jobs could not code; apparently Elon Musk's coding skills include assembly language and C++ which should be good enough for any nerd's CV/résumé)

Space Chronicles: Facing the Ultimate Frontier (2012) Neil deGrasse Tyson

Neil deGrasse Tyson is a rare breed of astrophysicist, one who can speak as easily and brilliantly with popular audiences as with professional scientists. Now that NASA has put human space flight effectively on hold—with a five- or possibly ten-year delay until the next launch of astronauts from U.S. soil—Tyson’s views on the future of space travel and America’s role in that future are especially timely and urgent. This book represents the best of Tyson’s commentary, including a candid new introductory essay on NASA and partisan politics, giving us an eye-opening manifesto on the importance of space exploration for America’s economy, security, and morale. Thanks to Tyson’s fresh voice and trademark humor, his insights are as delightful as they are provocative, on topics that range from the missteps that shaped our recent history of space travel to how aliens, if they existed, might go about finding us.

If you think North American governments should return to manned spaceflight, then this book is for you.

  • At the height of the Manned Space program during the Apollo moon missions, NASA's budget peaked at slightly less than 4% of GDP
  • This side of Y2K, NASA's budget stands at 0.5% of GDP while the Defense Department budget stands at 50% of GDP
  • NASA's budget could be doubled by diverting 0.5% from Defense and the Pentagon would not even know it
  • quote: it is not enough to add more STEM (science technology engineering math) teachers if there are no jobs waiting after graduation. So he is calling for a doubling of NASA’s budget in order to stimulate the economy.

SUNBURST and LUMINARY: An Apollo Memoir (2018) Don Eyles

 highly recommended  for spaceflight and computer enthusiasts
  • 357 pages and published in 2018
  • Don Eyles worked on the Apollo Project from 1966 through 1972, and on the NASA space program until 1998, as a computer scientist at the MIT Instrumentation Lab (a.k.a. Charles Stark Draper Laboratory) in Cambridge, Massachusetts. He created flight software for the lunar landing phase of the Moon mission, and invented a sequencing system that is in use on the International Space Station.
  • "SUNBURST" and "LUMINARY" two names of many Apollo Guidance Computer programs
    • SUNBURST and SUNDANCE only flew on Apollo missions not involving the Moon (eg. Apollo-5 with LM-1 and Apollo-9)
    • Starting with moon missions, all the LM program names began with an "L" (LUMINARY ) while all the CM programs began with a "C" (COLOSSUS and COMANCHE)
  • Initial code was developed using main frame computers (Honeywell 1800 and IBM 360) while some earlier expertise in Don's shop came from earlier work on vacuum-tube based system named Whirlwind
  • Provides good explanations of many AGC programs from P12 through P99 with the all-important P63 through to P66 used by the EL3D Windows simulation
  • excerpts from page 63-66:
    • Generically, the Apollo Guidance Computer was known as the AGC. The unit in the Command Module was identical to the unit in the LM except for software. We usually called ours the LGC (LM Guidance Computer)
    • While Whirlwind would set a record of running for 7-hours before failure, the goal of AGC was to run 100,000-hours without a failure
    • The AGC's principal designer was Eldon Hall. The architecture was implemented from 2800 triple input NOR gates. A 1966 interview with program manager Ralph Ragan estimated that building 4-5 AGC prototypes consumed 60% of the country's production of integrated circuits (chips)
    • RAM: magnetic cores arranged as 2k 16-bit words
    • ROM: 32K 16-bit words (SUNBURST); 34k 16-bit words (LUMINARY)
  • pages 142-162 contain a detailed while chilling explanation of everything in the Apollo-11 landing. This includes seven different DSKY diagrams as well as a diagram of the Rendezvous Radar mode switch which was implicated in the 1201-1201 alarm debacle
  • also lots of stuff about other missions including Apollo-12 which was would have landed within 400 feet (91 m) of Surveyor-3 if an astronaut would have not have overreacted.

The Apollo Guidance Computer: Architecture and Operation (2010) by Frank O'Brian

 highly recommended  for spaceflight and computer enthusiasts
  • 427 pages and published in 2010
  • The technological marvel that facilitated the Apollo missions to the Moon was the on-board computer. In the 1960s most computers filled an entire room, but the spacecraft’s computer was required to be compact and low power. Although people today find it difficult to accept that it was possible to control a spacecraft using such a ‘primitive’ computer, it nevertheless had capabilities that are advanced even by today’s standards. This is the first book to fully describe the Apollo guidance computer’s architecture, instruction format and programs used by the astronauts. As a comprehensive account, it will span the disciplines of computer science, electrical and aerospace engineering. However, it will also be accessible to the ‘space enthusiast’. In short, the intention is for this to be the definitive account of the Apollo guidance computer.

Digital Apollo: Human and Machine in Spaceflight (2008) David A. Mindell (MIT Press)

 highly recommended  for spaceflight and computer enthusiasts
  • 360 pages and published in 2008
  • Chapters 1-4 discuss flight engineering controls from the Wright Brothers through to the X-15 days at Edwards-Dryden
  • Chapter 5 discusses designing Apollo Guidance systems at MIT (which got its start in Polaris)
  • Chapter 6 discusses various management styles between NASA, contractors and sub-contractors. It also mentions a scheme to do in-flight repair of the AGC (this plan was cancelled once the AGC started to employ integrated circuits)
  • Chapter 7 discusses AGC hardware design which started out using discrete transistors and finished using 2-gate integrated circuits. At the peak in mid-1965, 600 people worked on AGC hardware.
    Note: even though the AGC software was written using METRIC MEASUREMENTS, the astronauts requested analog displays like "feet per second". The AGC was then required to do the conversion in order to drive these displays.
  • Chapter 8 presents an overview of AGC software which seems to have cropped up almost as an afterthought.
    • In 1960 NASA thought the computers would be programmed by mathematicians but this work turned out to be an engineering discipline.
    • In mid-1965 there were approximately 250 people working on AGC software. This number peaked at 400 in mid-1968.
    • Due to the small memory footprint, MIT employed a software interpreter rather than writing the programs in assembler.
    • This chapter also describes the low-tech LPD (landing point designator) which is comprised of colored  markings on the commander's window.
  • Chapter 9 (Apollo 11) discusses "executive overflow" alarms 1201 + 1202 and AGS memory location 413
  • Chapter 10 (Apollo 12, 14 - 17) also discusses VERB + NOUN syntax as well as detailed descriptions of each landing
  • Chapter 11 briefly touches on many things including: installing an Apollo AGC in an F-8, The Shuttle, CEV (Crew Exploration Vehicle), glass cockpit of the Airbus A-320, etc.

Failure is not an Option: Mission Control from Mercury to Apollo-13 and Beyond (2000/2009) Gene Krantz

Gene Kranz was present at the creation of America's manned space program and was a key player in it for three decades. As a flight director in NASA's Mission Control, Kranz witnessed firsthand the making of history. He participated in the space program from the early days of the Mercury program to the last Apollo mission, and beyond. He endured the disastrous first years when rockets blew up and the United States seemed to fall further behind the Soviet Union in the space race. He helped to launch Alan Shepard and John Glenn, then assumed the flight director's role in the Gemini program, which he guided to fruition. With his teammates, he accepted the challenge to carry out President John F. Kennedy's commitment to land a man on the Moon before the end of the 1960s. Kranz was flight director for both Apollo 11, the mission in which Neil Armstrong fulfilled President Kennedy's pledge, and Apollo 13. He headed the Tiger Team that had to figure out how to bring the three Apollo 13 astronauts safely back to Earth. (In the film Apollo 13, Kranz was played by the actor Ed Harris, who earned an Academy Award nomination for his performance.) In Failure Is Not an Option, Gene Kranz recounts these thrilling historic events and offers new information about the famous flights. What appeared as nearly flawless missions to the Moon were, in fact, a series of hair-raising near misses. When the space technology failed, as it sometimes did, the controllers' only recourse was to rely on their skills and those of their teammates. Kranz takes us inside Mission Control and introduces us to some of the whiz kids -- still in their twenties, only a few years out of college -- who had to figure it all out as they went along, creating a great and daring enterprise. He reveals behind-the-scenes details to demonstrate the leadership, discipline, trust, and teamwork that made the space program a success. Finally, Kranz reflects on what has happened to the space program and offers his own bold suggestions about what we ought to be doing in space now. This is a fascinating firsthand account written by a veteran mission controller of one of America's greatest achievements.

Sojourner: An Insider's View of the Mars Pathfinder Mission (2004) Andrew Mishkin

Andrew Mishkin, a senior systems engineer at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory and a leader of NASA's robotic program, brings us this insider's look at the Mars Pathfinder probe that electrified the world's imagination. One hundred twenty-two million miles away from her controllers, a sophisticated robot smaller than a microwave oven did what had never been done before-explored the rocky, red terrain of Mars. Then, six-wheeled Sojourner beamed spectacular pictures of her one-of-a-kind mission back to Earth. And millions of people were captivated. Now, with the touch of an expert thriller writer, Sojourner operations team leader Andrew Mishkin tells the inside, human story of the Mars Pathfinder mission's feverish efforts to build a self-guided, off-roading robot to explore the surface of the Red Planet. With witty, compelling anecdotes, he describes the clash of temperamental geniuses, the invention of a new work ethic, the turf wars, the chewing-gum solutions to high-tech problems, the controlled chaos behind the strangely beautiful creation of an artificial intelligence-and the exhilaration of inaugurating the next great age of space exploration

Moon Lander: How We Developed the Apollo Lunar Module (2004) Thomas J. Kelly

  • published by Smithsonian Books in 2004, this hardcover edition weighs in at 283 pages.
  • Unlike other Apollo books, this book is more about engineering than space flight. That said, anyone working in a technical field will find this an enjoyable read.

Apollo in Perspective (2000) Jonathan Allday

 highly recommended  for space enthusiasts
  • Subtitled "Spaceflight Then and Now", this hardcover book weighs in at 320 pages.
  • What a surprise. An internet friend suggested I buy this book just to read chapters 5 (The Apollo Command and Service Modules) and 6 (The Lunar Module) but I decided to read the whole thing because it is a treasure trove of information. Here are the chapter names with a few comments thrown in:
    • 1) Apollo in Outline
    • 2) The Best Driver in Physics
      • falling, momentum (P=mv), the physics of rocket motors
    • x) Intermission 1: The Saturn V booster rocket
    • 3) Rocketry
      • Thrust, Impulse, Propellant (fossil, cryogenic, hypergolic, solid), Applying Newton's Laws to a Spacecraft, Real Rocket Engines, Staging, A Typical "Saturn V" Launch, Future Developments in Rocketry (including nuclear engines, solar sails, ion motors)
      • Thrust (T=u • Δm/Δt   where: u=exhaust velocity)
      • Impulse (I=u/g   where: u=exhaust velocity)
      • Given: F=ma   Since: m=Δv/Δt   Then: F=m • Δv/Δt   Then: FΔt=mΔv (note: one definition of impulse is: FΔt)
    • x) Intermission 2: From Mercury to Gemini
    • 4) Orbits and Trajectories
      • including: Orbits, Centripetal Forces, Gravity and Orbits, Other Orbits (includes Elliptical Orbits), Simulating Gravity (includes examples of Babylon 5), Changing Orbits (includes Circularization Burns and when to do them, Hohmann transfers), Flying to the Moon (includes: The Apollo third stage was under fueled so that the CSM would require 3 days to get to the moon rather than one; why? because a faster velocity meant more breaking would be required to be captured by lunar gravity but the SPS engine was too small for this), Trajectories to Mars (includes: why a lower delta-V is required to get to Mars than than to the Moon), Space Stations
    • 5) The Apollo Command and Service Modules
      • Mission Modes, The Command Module (includes a scary description of the Apollo 1 fire), The Service Module
    • x) Intermission 3: Inertial Guidance and Computers
      • The Need for a Guidance System, Guidance and Control Systems, The Apollo Computer, The Apollo Computer in Perspective
    • 6) The Lunar Module
      • Designing the First Spacecraft, The Ascent Stage, The Descent Stage, Space Suits, The Lunar Rover, The Ascent to Orbit
    • x) Intermission 4: The Three 'ings' (Eating, Sleeping, Excreting)
    • 7) The Shuttle and its Followers
      • The space shuttle, Shuttle Components,
    • x) Intermission 5: The Politics of Apollo
    • 8) Mars
    • x) Intermission 6: Godspeed John Glenn (for both of his missions with a 36-year gap)
    • 9) Journeys to the Stars
      • Orion and project Daedalus, Laser propulsion, Ramjet, Antimatter Drive, Colony ships, Wormholes, etc.
    • x) Appendix 1: Glossary
    • x) Appendix 2: Apollo Mission Summary
    • x) Appendix 3: Development of Boosters
    • x) Appendix 4: Deriving Some of the Maths
    • x) Appendix 5: Further Information
    • x) Index

Journey to the Moon: The History of the Apollo Guidance Computer (1996) Eldon C. Hall

  • The Apollo Guidance Computer (AGC) sits squarely between the mainframe punched-card readers of the 1950s and the microprocessor-based desktop personal computers of the 1970s (Apple II, TRS-80, Commodore PET). This book gives the best view of what the American aerospace industry was capable of building in the 1960s and how Apollo stimulated the electronics industry to produce standardized semiconductor technologies like RTL (resistor-transistor logic) and DTL (diode-transistor logic).
  • Excerpt From Page 19: This action made NASA's Apollo Program the single largest single consumer of integrated circuits between 1961 and 1965. Design and production of the Block I Apollo computer consumed about 200,000 (Fairchild Inc.) Micrologic elements.
  • During the lunar landing phase of Apollo 11, computer program alarms 1201 + 1202 caused some concern to everyone listening in. Pin-headed reporters will have you believe that someone had mis-programmed the computer. This notion is completely wrong. In fact, the AGC was truly fault-tolerant and continued to function even though it was too busy to process all the incoming information. These alarms basically mean "I am too busy to do all you are asking of me so I'm only go to pay attention to the important stuff". During missions after Apollo-11 the astronauts would avoid this situation by just turning off the rendezvous radar (which is only needed when trying to fly back to the CSM in lunar orbit above)
  • Part I - History
    1. Computer Hardware
    2. Computers (Educational, Commercial, Aerospace)
    3. MIT Instrumentation Laboratory
  • Part II - Apollo Hardware
    1. Requirements
    2. In The Beginning - Apollo Computer
    3. Winds of Change Were Blowing (Discrete Transistors to Integrated Circuits)
    4. Block I Computers (1963)
    5. System Integration
      • EMI problems, TC (Transfer Control) Trap Alarms, Uplink Interference
    6. Naysayers and Advice from Outside Experts
    7. Next Generation - Block II (1964)
    8. Naysayers Revisited
    9. Reliability
  • Part III - Apollo Software
    1. Software Development
      • NASA originally thought that the AGC software would be created by mathematicians. Later on, contractors provided "computer programmers" and "system engineers".
      • Fortran and MAC (an MIT algorithmic programming language) were the only two software tools originally considered. Later on, macro assemblers were developed and then run on AGC simulators implemented in mainframe computers from IBM and Honeywell.
    2. Mission Software
    3. Finale
  • Other
    • Appendices + Index
    • 43 Photographic Plates on 32 pages
    • Page 8 contains the coolest picture of core memory similar to this one.
    • Click here to try out a really cool PC-based "Apollo Lunar Landing Simulator" with a working AGC
Time Technology Wiring Unit
1945s Electromechanical Relays
Vacuum Tubes
Hand wiring between components $$$$$$ Experimental - Academic (ENIAC)
1950s Vacuum Tubes Hand wiring between components $$$$$ Experimental - Academic (Whirlwind)
Military (SAGE)
1955s Germanium Transistors/Core Memory Printed Circuits $$$$ Mainframe/Batch
1960s Silicon Transistors/Core Memory
Integrated Circuits Core Memory
Printed Circuits with Integrated Circuits $$$ Mainframe/Interactive
Apollo Guidance Computer (AGC)
Minicomputer (DEC PDP-8)
1970s Microprocessors/Electronic Memory Printed Circuits with Integrated Circuits $$ Minicomputer (DEC PDP-11)
Desktop Computer (Apple II, TRS-80, etc)
1980s Microprocessors/Electronic Memory Printed Circuits with Integrated Circuits $ Desktop Computer (IBM-PC, Compaq, etc)

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Neil Rieck
Waterloo, Ontario, Canada.