From the Archives: Books by Samuel Florman, Tim Berners-Lee and Ellen Ullman.

Nov 28 2010 Published by under book review, science books

I have a whole pile of science-y book reviews on two of my older blogs, here and here. Both of those blogs have now been largely superseded by or merged into this one. So I'm going to be slowly moving the relevant reviews over here. I'll mostly be doing the posts one or two per weekend and I'll occasionally be merging two or more shorter reviews into one post here.

This one includes three shorter reviews:


Florman, Samuel C. The Introspective Engineer. New York: St. Martin's Press. 3/1996. 220 pp. ISBN-13: 978-0312151522

Finally, a book that I like! Engineers don't have such a great reputation -- they tend to be "can do" people with a lot of confidence and, supposedly, arrogant and indifferent to social needs. Florman's rather introspective extended essay takes a long hard look at this stereotype and finds much truth in it. At the same time, however, he also finds in engineers the practical bent to do a lot of good in the world. After all, virtually every aspect of our material lives is engineered in some form or other, so engineers and engineering can't be all bad, can it? Personally, I've always liked engineers and valued their mindset and this book is a good examination of the strengths and weaknesses of that mindset and how they are manifested in the profession today.

Berners-Lee, Tim with Mark Fischetti. Weaving the Web: The Original Design and Ultimate Destiny of the World Wide Web. New York: HarperSanFrancisco, 1999. 209 pp. ISBN-13: 978-0062515872

This is the story of how the web was created at the CERN laboratory in Switzerland in the early 90s. It's a pretty good story, made even more interesting by how close it seemed to never happening. Berners-Lee always seemed to be under pressure to spend more time on his real work instead of fiddling with this hypertext business. Also remarkable is Berners-Lee's commitment to making the web as open and free as possible.

If Berners-Lee hadn't developed the web, what eventually would have come would have been very different, certainly more commercial than even today. A near miss, and an interesting idea for an alternate history story.

Ullman, Ellen. The Bug. New York: Anchor, 2004. 368pp. ISBN-13: 978-1400032358

This is quite simply, a novel about how crazy it is being a software developer. It revolves around the a software project in the mid-1980's and a huge, impossible bug that creeps into the user interface code. The bug only appears sporadically and unpredictably, make it very difficult to figure out the underlying cause. The main characters in the novel are the programmers, Ethan Levin, and the tester, Berta Walton. Each of them have troubled personal lives that parallel the progress of the bug, while the view each other with distrust and suspicion.

The soap opera aspects of their lives doesn't work as well as the portrait of the programmer's life; at about page 300 (of 350) we learn something about Ethan's relationship with his girlfriend that totally changes our view of him and the root cause of their breakup, which I think is unfair to the reader. Nevertheless, the characters and plot are certainly strong enough to support the more interesting aspect of the novel from our point of view here. For those of you who want to understand what it's like to be a programmer, working with flaky systems, uncertain requirements, killer deadlines and and the limitations of the human capacity to understand very large and complex systems, this is the novel for you.

Ullman is a former software developer and it shows. Having been a software developer myself for 12 years, it rings very true.

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