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:

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.

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

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

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