The Bookworm - Carl Spitzweg - a suitable illustration for Alan Lenton's website

Phlogiston Blue

'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')

This is Alan Lenton's web site.

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 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.

Recent Reading:

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.

Highly recommended.

Nomonhan 1939 by Stuart D. Goldman. Published by Published by Naval institute Press

The Battle of Nomonhan (aka Khalkin Gol) was a battle fought between Soviet Russia and Japan. It took place on the Mongolian-Manchurian border in 1939.  At the time Mongolia was a Russian client state, and Manchuria was a Japanese client state. The importance of the battle - actually a series of battles culminating in a crushing victory by the Russians - was overshadowed by the outbreak of World War II.

The author has done an excellent job of recreating the background to what was originally a small border dispute, and setting it within geopolitical framework of the time. It is his contention that the Battle and its eventual outcome were important for the development of the tactics employed successfully by the Red Army against Germany. Massed armor and artillery, air support, logistics, deception, all were tried out at Nomonhan. And significantly, the commander was none other than General Georgy Zhukov, who was later to use these tactics successfully in the battles of Moscow and Stalingrad.

Few military historians would dispute this position, but the author has a second, and perhaps more contentious thesis - that the battle of Nomonhan was a significant factor, though not the prime factor, in Stalin's 1939 decision to sign a pact with Hitler's Germany.

Few, if any, of the extant analyses of the diplomatic situation make any reference to Nomonhan. However, in my opinion, the author makes a good case, and I'm inclined to agree with him. The author himself makes it clear that it wasn't the prime reason, but the outcome of the battle did matter.

All in all an excellent book throwing light onto what has, until now, been an obscure piece of history to most in the west.

More Recent Reading

Aspects of Developing with, and Using, Open Source Software

Computers and Society

Crystal Falls

Notes for a history of online games

Reviews: books and software

Technical Topics

Winding Down

About Alan Lenton

If you have any questions or comments about the articles on my web site, click here to send me email.