'Twas brillig, and the slithy toves
Did gyre and gimble in the internet
All mimsy were the routers,
And the mome raths outgrabe.
(with apologies to Lewis Carroll's 'Jabberwocky')
I am the designer and programmer of Federation 2, an economic themed multi-player game. Federation 2 is the longest continuously running multiplayer game on the internet. While no longer run as a commercial enterprise - text based games are no longer in vogue - the game fills a niche and maintains a large enough user base to be viable as a game. I still maintain and extend it in my copious (hah!) free time.
My web site contains pieces I've written, talks I've given, reviews of books I've read, and information about things I'm interested in. Like me, it's somewhat chaotic, but if you dig around a little you will, I hope, find some interesting material. Most of the stuff on the site is written for the non-specialist; if you find something that isn't very clear drop me a line and I'll try to clarify things. The address to write to is firstname.lastname@example.org and if you include the word 'fed2' in the subject line my spam filter will pass it by on the other side and not junk it!
I also produce a free weekly newsletter, called Winding Down, which features information, reviews, and analysis on computers, the Internet and society. It's available via an e-mail list, and you can get the subscription details here.
You can find more detailed information about me here.
The Secrets of Alchemy by Lawrence M. Principe. Published by The University of Chicago Press
The first thing to note about this book is that the title is somewhat misleading. It would be more accurate to call it a history of alchemy. I was nearly put off buying it because of its title, but in retrospect I'm glad I wasn't, because it's a very interesting book.
What the author sets out to do is to restore an understanding alchemy of within its historical and cultural framework. I think he succeeds in this aim. There is in Western society a tendency to think of alchemy as being something vaguely to do with magic - but nothing could be further from the truth. The work of most alchemists would be recognized today as experimentally rigorous, and based on the best theories of the nature of matter that existed at the time.
Take, for instance, the search for the legendary Philosopher's Stone, the secret of turning lead into gold. We know that's not possible to do chemically today. Why do we know that? Because we know that lead and gold are elements. The elements are defined by the number of protons in their nucleus. Chemical reactions only work on the electrons in atoms, and you can't change the make-up of an atomic nucleus by fiddling with its electrons.
But we didn't find this out until about a hundred years ago. In the golden age of alchemy, which roughly coincides with the Scientific Revolution (1500-1700), the belief was that matter was a compound, and the properties of any given piece of matter were determined by the proportions of more fundamental substances. Theoretically, if this were the case it should have been possible to change, for instance, lead into gold by altering those proportions in lead until they matched the proportions that defined gold. It was this theoretical view that drove the search for a substance that altered these proportions. (This is a simplified view; the book explains in much more detail.)
The book covers the history of alchemy from its beginnings in the third century AD through to its effective demise at the end of the 19th Century. Along the way it discusses many other aspects of alchemy, including its impact on early medicine, laboratory work, and chemistry. It also looks in more depth at some of the work of famous alchemists, including the attempts of the author to recreate their work in the lab - with interesting results.
Well worth a read if you have any interest in the history of science.
The Master Switch by Tim Wu. Published by Atlantic Books
Subtitled 'The Rise and Fall of Information Empires' Tim Wu's book is a tour de force history of the four great information technologies of the 20th Century - the telephone, radio/television, movies, and the internet. The book is both a history and an analysis of these industries. The lessons we can draw from the stories he tells have serious implications for the current struggle over what is now known as 'net neutrality.
The individual stories of the technologies themselves are interesting enough in their own right, but what is striking is the common themes of the histories of the telephone, radio and movies. In each case as the new disruptive technologies came into existence and there was a period of free for all, anarchy if you like, in which innovators thrived, anyone could join in, and the cost of entry was minimal.
Then came a period of consolidation, often assisted by government desire to regulate and consolidate. Politicians are notoriously wary of their constituents doing this for themselves, while the bureaucrats who run the regulatory bodies always push for consolidation. After all it's a lot easier to talk to, and come to agreement with, a few large bodies that have a similar culture, than hundreds of small organization filled with fractious non-conformists!
And of course, once you have a monopoly or semi-monopoly situation, it becomes easier to suppress new, disruptive, innovations - the suppression of FM radio in the early 30s by RCA being a classic case. In other cases the leadership of the monopoly involved simply could not conceive of any way of working other than the one currently in use. Thus the officials at AT&T thought the concept of packet switched networks (the basis of the internet) was "preposterous". In fact, so wedded were the AT&T officials to the circuit based network (the AT&T slogan was One company, One system, Universal Service), that they even turned down a US Air Force offer to pay for an experimental packet switched network!
But this isn't just a technical history. It's also a social history of the struggle to keep those technologies in the hands of ordinary people, and that is as important as the technical issues, because that is exactly what is happening now in both the internet and the software forums. In the internet the struggle is being waged under the rubric of 'net neutrality, while the software struggle is being waged through patent reform.
Both are important. At the moment anyone can post material onto the net - you don't require anyone's permission to do so, or to check what you've written before it's posted. Anyone can write software - all you need is a general purpose computer, usually a desktop PC, and a compiler or a browser, depending on your language of choice. Do I really have to tell you that the politicians and big business would prefer it otherwise?
We are on a cusp when it comes to questions of how the new and currently cheap enabling technologies of computing and the internet will be used in the future, and Tim Wu's readable and fascinating book is an important chronology and analysis of what happened on previous occasions. We need to understand that and learn its lessons, because those who fail to learn from history are doomed to repeat it.