Anyone interested in learning more about computers might enjoy ‘Code’ by Charles Petzold. I’ve just finished it, and found it very readable.
It sets out to be a beginners guide to how computers work, but without all the cute analogies and pictures of 1’s and 0’s in pidgeon holes that seem to crop up in other texts like this.
It probably helps that I first encountered the author as my introduction to programming Windows. As I type this I’m unsure if I ever read all of his classic ‘Programming Windows’ (I was a student when I needed to, and probably borrowed it), but I certainly read large chunks. It has a clear, no-nonsense, style I enjoyed.
All you really need to understand to follow Code is how a relay works, and he explains that from first principles. He then works up to laying them out by the thousand to produce a computer recognisable today. One interesting observation is that much of the technology needed to create a computer was around a hundred years old before someone assembled one we would recognise. There’s a different path the world might have taken, if that had happened earlier!
Prompted by a book I borrowed from a friend, I’ve decided to learn Lisp.
Many years ago, the first programming course on my degree was in a language similar to Lisp (that I now forget), and I thoroughly enjoyed using it. MacLisp was also around on campus, for use in ‘maths stuff’. Not being a mathematician, I ignored that.
Both experiences made me write off lisp (and similar brethren) as a practical language – they seemed too small, too focussed on things like recursion that aren’t all that useful on constrained systems.
However, there’s a famous quote around that notes that everyone should learn Lisp, if only for the experience, and the write up in Hackers and Painters persuaded me to have a go.
So far, I’m up to chapter 15 in ‘Practical Common Lisp‘, and I think I may be hooked!
Sometimes I buy a book based purely on its cover.
Just before Christmas I found myself in Gay’s The Word (a very fine bookstore), looking for some holiday reading matter. I picked up several books, some of which I had been looking for, and some of which I had read other material by the same author.
Queer London just jumped off of the shelf, with a really nice cover and a snappy title.
The book covers the period 1918-1957 which is, of course, the time from the end of the first world war to the publishing of the ‘Wolfenden Report’, which presaged the limited decriminalisation of gay sex in the UK. It’s a fairly dry read at times (it shows its roots as a PhD thesis), but I was gripped by it. The stories of London from a time when being gay was very different, and yet recognisable, are fascinating.
The description of life in the East End was particularly interesting, as large parts of my family come from that part of London. A key argument in the book is that applying the word ‘gay’ to historical cultures is a tricky thing. Today it means so much more than a simple tag for people like me. The author identifies three distinct subcultures among what would now be labelled gay people in the time under question, and each is quite different from the understanding we now have of what it is to be a gay man in London.
I find information about how other cultures deal with people like me educational. I find it easy to lapse into an assumption that our current method of handling gay people is somehow inevitable, when clearly it is not. To find a different (subtly perhaps, but quite distinct) way of living with gay people quite so close to home was the surprise as I read this book.
Perils and Pleasures in the Sexual Metropolis, 1918-1957
The University of Chicago Press