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 Technical and Social History of Software Engineering by Capers Jones. Published by Addison Wesley.

This book has been sitting on my desk for more than a month since I finished reading it. The thorny question was, how to review it. So, what's the problem? Well, on the one hand it's quite interesting, and would be useful to someone trying to write a history of computing. On the other hand the title is a complete misnomer. It's nothing much to do with the social history of software engineering, and a somewhat lopsided view of the technical history, concentrating on business applications and the rise of function point metrics, which the author champions.

After a brief nod towards aspects of pre-digital computing, the book is basically a linear description of the commercial market.The earlier chapters clearly make use of a lot the information contained in the Wikipedia. This was not a wise choice. The Wikipedia's striving for academic respectability has resulted in vast swathes of material relating to personal computing in the 1980s and 90's being removed. They were either oral history, or from long defunct computing magazines, and therefore had no 'proper' citations, according to the Wikipedia. In social history terms this is a critical omission.

Allied to this is the complete absence of any discussion about the role of computer games in the history of computing, both as an introduction to using computers, and as an influence on software practitioners. The author briefly mentions this problem later on in the book, but makes no attempt to rectify it. It is understandable that the author is not familiar with the games industry, coming as he does from a commercial background. However, he should have made himself familiar with the industry if he wanted to write a book on the history of computing (social or otherwise). The attitude shown is redolent of a common theme in certain parts of the industry until the start of the current century. It is an attitude that considers games to be a waste of otherwise useful computing power.

Almost completely absent from the book is any attempt to discuss the social history of computing - either its effects on society, or the social development of its practitioners. For instance, the rise of open source software is as much about the politics and sociology of computing, as it is about technical development, and yet the topic is barely touched in the book. Neither are the very early struggles of programmers of the very first computers to become recognized in their own right, instead of being considered mere lab technicians by the academics who wanted to study 'computing'.

From the point of view of a technical history there is no feel of an overall concept, leading to a large proportion of the book being one or two page summaries of selected companies in the industry. Even at this level there seems to be no understanding of the extent to which the big 'non-computing' businesses have become, over the period covered, software houses specializing in whatever was their business before the rise of cheap computing power. The classic case for this is, of course, the big banks who have gone from being banking houses with a software department to being software houses with a banking license. The fact that most boards of directors of these bodies have not yet caught up with the reality of their business does not absolve the author of a book on software engineering history from noticing the metamorphosis!

All in all, a rather disappointing read...

The reviewer is a professional programmer, and holds a degree in Sociology from Leeds University

America's First Great Depression by Alasdair Roberts. Published by Cornell University Press

This is an interesting book, looking, as it does, at the at the first major cycle of boom and bust to arrive after the American revolution. Although eclipsed in folk memory by the great depression of the 1930s, it's arguable that the depression of 1837 had a much more far reaching effect on how the USA was governed.

For the purposes of analysis the author splits the period from the start of the depression through to the end of the Mexican War into sections dealing with the crisis of the individual states, the problems of the Federal Government, and the issue of law and order. This sometimes makes the narrative a little fuzzy, but does help define the issues.

It was the law and order problems in this period that firmly established the precedent that the federal government would use federal forces to assist states in putting down insurrectionary movements. This was also the time when the cities of New York, Boston, Philadelphia and Baltimore established police forces on London's 'civil army' pattern following serious rioting, something which would have been unthinkable previously.

In the main the book deals with the constitutional issues, hardly surprising given the author's background as a professor of Law and Public Policy at Suffolk University Law School. However, that is not to say the book deals exclusively with such issues, or is dry as dust. Quite to the contrary, it is a lively read.

Most people around at the moment can only remember a time when the USA has been the dominant economy, and the dominant military, but that really has only been for the last 50 years. Times are changing with the rise of China, which already holds a substantial proportion of the US Federal Government debt, and is rapidly modernising its armed forces.

The solutions available, economic, political and military, are changing and if that change is not to be violent and disruptive, then the hard  lessons of history must pondered over and assimilated.

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.