The book, that relatively ancient technology, continues to prove itself relevant even in the era of the Web.
Indeed, even the comic book seems to be pulling its own weight in a world of walking, talking, interactive Web pages. Just look at the one Google put out to explain the workings of its Chrome browser.
Now, those hipper than me will rush to point out that Google actually released its Chrome comic in 2008, a good century ago in Internet time, but I just came across it. And I can tell you, it's one of the most lucid explanations of what goes on inside modern-day computers that I've ever seen. Everyone in IT ought to give it a look.
I don't know enough to say if Chrome is superior to its rivals, either technically or functionally. But there's no question that the Chrome comic is one of best explanations of software design around. All software documentation should be so easy to grasp, and as fun to read, as well.
The other book that has my attention right now is Turing's Cathedral, by George Dyson. It, too, is about what goes on inside computers, though here the focus is on the earliest such machines, and especially those with which John von Neumann was involved. It's von Neumann's idea of storing data and program in the same memory, of course, that continues to inform most computing devices today.
Von Neumann was a brilliant mathematician from Hungary who fled the Nazis for the US and landed at the newly established Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, N.J. Also there were Albert Einstein, Kurt Gödel, and many other European intellectuals. Inspired by the work of British mathematician Alan Turing, von Neumann and others at the Institute began developing their own digital computer during the war, and, according to Dyson, they ended up creating the world's first general-purpose computer.
Traditionally, that title has gone to ENIAC, built around the same time at the University of Pennsylvania. And already, Dyson's book has been criticized for not giving sufficient credit to work done in Britain and elsewhere. But it's not the who's-first aspect of Dyson's research that grabbed me, it's the very rich human story he tells along with a rare technical understanding and seriousness.
Dyson has some great characters and momentous times to write about: highly cultured Europeans dropping into the wilds of New Jersey; a Newark department store family funding the Institute; the many brilliant people enlisted to develop atomic weapons; and the dawning of the digital age. And the research he has undertaken, interviewing many of those who were there and mining endless archives, is evident on every page.
Yet, Dyson isn't afraid of writing passages like this:
Pomerene's team developed timing and control circuits that governed the electron beam deflection voltages with enough precision to allow access to any location at any time, appropriating a few microseconds before resuming the normal scan/refresh cycles where they left off. The result was an electronically switched 32-by-32 array of capacitors, with a 24-microsecond access time...
In other words, readers who appreciate electronics and computing will get a particular kick out of this book. And if nothing else, they'll see that many of today's problems in computing -- cooling hardware, organizing memory, etc. -- have been challenges since Day One.