Tag: books

Reading: Dealers of Lightning

So one thing about commuting into Cambridge every day is that I’ve become  once again a voracious reader. And I’m not talking what I consider the classics like Black Like Me, Brave New World, A Kiss Before Dying, The Greek Tragedies, etc.

No I’m talking books that delve into the psyche of the discoveries that have shaped the modern world. Be it one about Bell Labs in their heyday, MIT’s Rad Lab, DARPA, Xerox PARC, and the Manhattan Project.

The book is by Michael Hiltzik and titled “Dealers of Lightning”. A fascinating romp through the personalities that gave us modern technology. Everything we do on computers – it came out of someones mind. Think about that for a second. It’s fascinating.

I’ve just begun reading but am already notating the thing like crazy. The management style omnipresent in all those books – interdisciplinary teams but better yet, the men who built those teams. I suppose it interests me because i found out well over a decade ago that my management style is team builder.

But here’s the synopsis of the developments to come out of Xerox PARC:

  • Graphic User Interface
  • Ethernet – the predominant networking technology. Somewhere in your home if you have internet service there are Ethernet ports.
  • Laser Printers

And a brief view of how we got where we are today:

  • Bell Labs invents the transistor in the late 1940’s
  • Transistor is further developed in the 1950’s.
  • By the 1950’s computers start coming to the fore – but they’re basically calculating machines. Still are to some degree today.
  • By the 1960’s we start seeing people frustrated by the non-interactive nature of computing. I got exposed to this in the early 1980’s when I took a PL/I programming course. We had to use IBM Model 29 card punch machines to code up our programs and then submit a deck of cards to be processed. The book laments the pitfalls of such, like your 6000 line program craps at line 430 because you forgot a comma. So you fix the comma issue and re-submit the deck. Then you realize you somehow swapped the 0 and O characters on line 5400. It was frustrating and could take DAYS. For me it was particularly frustrating as I’d started the programming kick with an interactive time shared system call RSTS/E that ran on a DEC PDP-11/70.
  • But in the 1960’s men like Bob Taylor, and his crew plus the general area around Silicon Valley started bubbling with ideas from how to hook computers together, to time sharing, to early graphic user interfaces. Hell I’ve seen Spacewar on a DEC PDP-12 LINC. (LINC is Laboratory Instrument Computer)
  • And right now I’m posting this on a WYSIWYG (What you see is what you get) machine running Windows 10.
  • They also dreamed up small, portable computing. Sitting right next to me are my cell phone and my Amazon Fire HD6 tablet. Between them they represent the culmination of all of the above.
  • I’m waiting to see where the quantum world takes us. Imagine computing on such a massive parallel quantum system – this is at the level down below the atom which is where we are now.
  • I also see much more immersive systems coming with high quality 3D systems, etc.

Needless to say I’m tearing through the book rapidly. Because I also like knowing where we came from. I got to experience some of that. But by the time I’d gotten there a lot had been settled already. But then, who knows where I’ll end up.

Currently Reading: Engineers of Victory: The Problem Solvers Who Turned the Tide In the Second World War

The books is by Paul Kennedy. It walks through the technological changes but not just that but changes in bureaucracy too. For example the inter-service rivalries in the U.S. had to be managed and even a concept like having a headquarters ship had to be developed.

But one thing emerges – the Nazi’s were really sons of bitches, Hitler prime among them. From the U-boats that were dispatched by the allies by using aircraft to the whole Blitzkrieg concept. Germany has a fairly up to snuff military in the 1930’s – and the military units they faced like that of France, Poland and even Russia to a degree all hadn’t progressed sufficiently enough from the technology of World War I. And Germany took advantage of that fact. And the Nazi Germans used some rather devious field maneuvers.

A great example – the Russian T-34 tank. The Russians had actually sent one to the Aberdeen proving grounds in the U.S. for testing. What came back were recommendations to rectify stiff controls, better gun turret, etc. The Aberdeen folks did like the sloped design of the T-34 though. (All images – click to embigen)

That shown above is a T-34-85. The Russians took the recommendations seriously – but it took some time to change over to building the T-34-85 when need for tanks was so high.

Consider – tanks prior looked like these:

And of course today tanks look more like this, An Abrams M1A1 – that baby has a turbine for an engine.

One interesting thing to note. In the U.S. Army – the three man crew of an M1A1 – they rotate duties. Today you might be the commander of the mission, tomorrow you might be gunner, or driver. Keeps everyone sharp. I like that. Hell if I’d had to join the Army I definitely would have gravitated toward tanks.

Currently Reading: How I Paid for College: A novel of Sex, Theft, Friendship and Musical Theater

I got it because it was mentioned on BosGuy’s Blog. Went over to Amazon, started reading it and decided it was worth the price. Clicked buy and it was instantly on my Fire HD6.

Now this book is seriously funny. Marc Acito (A fellow Italian-American) is a great humorous writer. I’m 43% into the book and I’ll likely finish it tonight, having just gotten it yesterday.

What I will say is the protagonist in this book – his dad must have known mine. Which is why I don’t speak to my father anymore. Only difference between the protagonist and me is I never got into musical theater even if I did get scary high grades all through my education – in fact the only reason I got a 3.82 GPA in college was because there were a few classes I just didn’t give a flying fuck about them, prime among them the Legal Environment of Business. That class REALLY frosted my ass.

But the book is riotously funny. Reading it one the train home I had to stop myself from laughing out loud on several occasions. But at home I read it and I’m asked what’s so funny.

Acito’s writing reminds me a bit of David Sedaris work, or even Douglas Adams. A complete irreverence for the Catholic church which i have in spaced, but the lead character in the book – even dons priestly attire and uses it to maximum advantage. Me – I never had that in me. Getting alcohol was never a problem – particularly when I worked right next to a liquor store and knew their people so as long as the cash was green we had beer and ale.

It’s under ten bucks so go get it and laugh your ass off.

Reading: Forcing the Spring: Inside the Fight for Marriage Equality

Well – reading means currently doing so but I’ve finished the book. All in all a nice view inside the goings on of both the Prop 8 and DOMA cases. 

Now I’ve seen numerous complaints around the web from those who say the book overlooked all the people who’ve fought for full equality. That may be so but the book only focused on the two cases, not the general movement.

In fact the book is highly relevant to me – as I had been about to embark on a case of my own against the State of Rhode Island before the legislature deigned to grant equality here. An attorney from GLAD in Boston had a conference call with me and my cousin Tom who was then training to become an attorney himself.

Some of the things she said remind me of the attitudes of the HRC and others – that the slow steady trod is what will pay off. For example, the woman said that the Rhode Island Judiciary was HOSTILE to the cause of marriage equality. This struck me as odd since in the Ormiston v. Chambers case the judge actually advised the women that they should have filed as an Article 1 Section 2 offense and she would have had to grant the divorce they sought.

I had actually warned legislators that their failure to act would result in embarrassment for the state. The reason I did that is because the only real obstacle to marriage equality in Rhode Island was the Family Law Act of 1967. I was ready to directly challenge the law. That would have put the kibosh on the act resulting in all sorts of grief but would have gained equality at long last. I think that’s what scared GLAD to the point they had to convince me not to file the suit. 

But the book – it shows what happens when a disruptive change takes place, but more to the point that organizations such as the HRC and others had to adapt to this new paradigm. In fact in the U.S. right now there are several suits in a whole bunch of southern states bubbling through the justice system. And the U.S. Supreme Court will once again have to revisit this case and employ a 50 state solution. 


Please read me a story ! MEME


 Here are my own answers.

1. Describe your favorite place to cozy-up with a good book.

Stretched out here on the leather recliner, or in bed I like to read a little bit before I drift off to sleep. 

2. What do you read when you’re on the toilet?

Depends – if it’s a book I’m really into then yes. But otherwise no, get in, wipe, flush, wash hands. 

3. Do you read when taking a bath?

Being that I rarely take a bath but I do shower and reading would be problematic. But with electronics I suppose anything is possible. I’m one step from turning my current XP box into a kitchen computer but then I could waterproof it and make it a Kindle reader in the shower. Hmmm, choices! 

4. If you can, do you read when at the gym?

No I do not. I tend to need music at the gym, when I do go. But then the music is almost always on for me. 

5. Do you still read newspapers and or magazines?

I read Make magazine and QST an amateur radio publication of the American Radio Relay League aka ARRL. I’m kd1s@arrl.net

6. What are your favorite genres to read?

Science Fiction, Historical/Political, Technical and believe it or not religious texts. Need to be well armed in that respect. 

7. Do you read one book at a time or can you read several?  I can read a few at a time. But if it’s a real page turner I’ll tend to plow through one. 

8. If you start a book, do you finish it no matter what?

I finish most everything I buy. But there are some – they’re just too badly written or boring that I might not ever finish them. 

9. Did your parents read to you when you were growing up? Yes and no. They taught me how to read and then supplied me with a steady supply of books to read. 

10. Have you read to your kids/nephews/nieces?

Haven’t had a real chance to do so. 

11. How do you feel about reading books vs. using electronic devices? Have your feelings evolved from one or two years ago? 

Paper based books – I’ve got a ton of them ranging technical, Science Fiction, historical/political etc. But my collection on Kindle is getting pretty huge. I like the convenience of being able to read any book at any time either on the PC or phone. And I can see a future in the very near term where paper books will be a thing of the past. 


When was the last time you looked at or read an adult magazine to satisfy yourself? When was the last time you even saw one? 

I cannot honestly remember the last time I looked at one or even saw one. Now as a youth I had quite the collection of magazines and videotapes. But they’ve all been sold off or thrown out. 

Reading: Exploding The Phone: The Untold Story of the Teenagers and Outlaws who Hacked Ma Bell

Written by Phil Lapsley with foreword by Steve Wozniak. It’s a fascinating trip through the days of yore and it triggers memories I have of the time. 

It’s the story on how a bunch of people accidentally or intentionally discovered one of the bigger security flaws of Ma Bell at the time. 

When engineers in the 1930’s and 1940’s were putting the long distance network together so it could be dialed by customers, a choice was made to use audible signalling and keep that signalling in-band. In other words it took the same path the voice portion of the call took. And Ma Bell published quite a bit – she told everyone what the frequency pairs were. 

I can recall too back in the early 1980’s a friend of mine had an Apple II machine with Novation CAT modem in it. The CAT was fully capable of generating ALL the tones used by Ma Bell. Spent many an hour on the 2111 conference with my friend. It was pretty interesting. Even got a demonstration of tandem stacking too. That was funny. It was all possible because of two factors – East Greenwich RI was still on older electromechanical switching systems and RI wasn’t a big target.  So yes, a fair amount of Blue Boxing was done. 

Of course Ma Bell took a heavy hand in all this – to the point of actually violating a few laws itself to try to get a handle on the problem of fraud in the system. It ultimately culminated in a completely separate network being built to handle all the call supervision and signalling. At the time it was SS5 or Signalling System 5. That eliminated the Blue Box capabilities. But you have to remember it took Ma Bell and her Children until the early 1990’s to get all of the network on what was then SS7. So you could still Blue Box from certain locations. 

I should explain the Blue box – in essence Ma Bell used 2600Hz to return supervision, and the combinations of frequencies to move calls around on the network.. The Blue Box was a portable device that could create those combinations. 

My trip through phone systems started with a descendant of the Southern Pacific Railroad which we know of today as Sprint. Back then you dialed a local access number, keyed in a six digit code and then the ten digit phone number you wanted to call. I had gotten a list of about 10 or so of these codes and I spotted something, they met a pattern. 

At the time I had my DC-II modem on my machine – it had the capability of sending DTMF as well as being able to tell when dial tone was present. So I wrote an algorithm with the pattern I’d seen in mind. I let it run for a couple of days. What I had at the end were 500 codes. Let’s just say my friends and I weren’t paying for long distance calls. 

It lay fallow for almost twenty years but then I found myself in a position of understand toll fraud on PBX’s which was pretty hefty. So I helped out in a few office that I worked in to secure the AT&T built PBX’s. I read all about those and the switches within the Bell System too. So I know a thing or two about their capabilities. One tour of a then New England Telephone #5 ESS was enlightening. This was right around the later 1980’s and the time of law enforcement wanting access on the switches to perform investigations. I believe it was call CALEA. I found out on that tour that not only did the cops have access, the switch guys had access too. They could listen in to any call in the digital voice stream. Interesting. 

Then of course I was the beneficiary of the daughter of all fuck ups with then Nynex at the time. I had moved from North Providence and the 401-725 exchange and coming back to Providence. So I called Nynex and requested the move in service. The installer came out, put in the jack and that was that. But month after month for nearly two years I got no bill. I had occasionally called Nynex at the time but the customer service reps would say they have no record of the phone number. Interesting. 

In the last six or so months I called Nynex almost daily to convince them I was calling from that line. Called repair to verify the line. Yup. It’s connected. But billing had no idea. Finally I got a CSR with more than two brain cells and we puzzled it out. Apparently the work order had gone in, but it was never returned to billing. So I paid $140 at the time and then started receiving a monthly bill. 

But the more interesting part this was at the point in time where you could choose your long distance carrier. I went with the default at&t since I rarely made long distance calls. But I did make them on occasion and they never billed. The Nynex CSR had no visibility into the long distance side. 

I found out from a friend in New Jersey what happened. He called me and said he got a call from the VA asking who was calling him from the VA. I understood what happened ; my number ended in 0716, the local VA hospital was on the same exchange in the 70xx  group and they had transposed digits to 7016. The VA was paying for my long distance. Sloppy screw up on Nynex’s part I suppose. 

Ten Books Meme

So here are my ten:

1) Stranger in a Strange Land – Robert Heinlein

2) The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy Trilogy – Douglas Adama

3) The Adolescence of P-1 by Thomas Ryan (You can read the whole book by clicking the link – it’s sort of heavy on IBM 360/370 jargon but the basic principle is easily readable.

4) Tales of the City – Armistead Maupin

5) The Dreyfus Affair – Peter Lefcourt

6) A Queer History of the United States – Michael Bronski

7) Brave New World – Aldous Huxley

8) The Number of the Best – Robert Heinlein

9) Christopher and His Kind – Christopher Isherwood

10) Job: A Comedy of Justice – Robert Heinlein