I have a Problem
There are some books that I can highly recommend. this includes a book that I intend to talk about later on in this essay. The problem in my recommendation for this particular book is that there is not necessarily any one certain thing that I can point to that makes this a recommendable book, it is kind of complicated.
There is, for example, a book such as Jane Austen’s “Pride and Prejudice”. I have always loved this book since it sparked a new wave of “Realism” in late 18th and early 19th century English literature. Instead of a florid style of writing and the stilted language of the British nobility that filled the pages of English literature, Jane Austen brought a simple story of the middle class problems with a family consisting of too many daughters and no sons. It was a story written in simple direct language and a clear direct manner.
In many ways it was such a ‘breath’ of fresh air that was complemented with the writing style of Charles Dickens. It was the Dickens massive collection of writings that burst the limits of the English literary circles that had been so confined. Bringing literature to the entire nation of Great Britain, indeed his popularity spread to the Americas as well. He brought a concern for the plight of the lower classes to the fore and he touched the lives of millions.
Yet, it was Jane Austen who really led the way for Dickens, and it seems only mildly strange that Jane Austen never intended to start a revolution in literature, she didn’t even intend to publish her stories. She wanted to write a stories to amuse her younger nieces. That is why the stories were written so simply, yet so clearly, and with great irony! In her lifetime they were published anonymously and she derived little income. Yet her influence in the world of literature was to become very large after her death, just as Dickens was to have a huge influence on the world of literature while he still lived. The style of “Realism” was to be their legacy.
This makes it very easy to recommend the books of Jane Austen and Charles Dickens to young readers. Even though the details of the works are clearly dated, the style is infectious and is still enjoyable even now in the 21st century.
What is My Problem?
My problem is that there are also books that I have found most enjoyable, but without the clear cut reasons for recommendation that I could offer for “Pride and Prejudice”, or “The Life and Adventures of Nicholas Nickleby”.
The book that I want to recommend is “The Soul of a New Machine” by Tracy Kidder and published in 1981. The new machine of the book is the Data General Eclipse MV/8000. And the book details the high pressure world of a computer engineering team racing to design and build a new machine from the ground up in a blistering race of time.
Data General had gotten itself into a pickle. They needed a new computer to compete with the VAX computer from DEC that had begun the race to enter the new 32 bit minicomputer market.
The senior designers for Data General were assigned the “sexy’ job of the designing the new generation computer that would put Data General into the race. They were being sent to the new Data General Research center in North Carolina. There to begin the “Fountainhead Project” that would bring the laurels to the company.
In the meantime, the remaining computer designers in Data General would stay in the corporate headquarters in Westborough, Mass and were given the more humble job of improving existing Data General products, such as the 16 bit Eagle minicomputer.
When the “Fountainhead Project” ran into difficulties and delays, Data General faced the prospect of falling behind the “hated” Digital Equipment Corporation (DEC)!
While inside the basements of Data General, the “humble” team, headed by computer engineer Tom West, decided to begin a project in semi-secret that could become a backup plan in case the fancy machine foundered. In that case, his project, code named “Super Eagle” could save the day for Data General. With his lieutenants, Tom West decided to take the Eagle and using a bit of stealth turn it into a 32 bit machine without top management being the wiser.
However, to complete this semi-secret project in time to be able to save the company, West had to take great risks. He decided to rely on new computer chips that had not proven themselves, and that had uncertain prospects for mass production. He had his middle level managers bring on promising college graduates (who had never designed anything so complicated before), but would be youngsters who would would work all their waking hours feverishly to get in on the ground floor of a new machine. In their world it was called playing “Pong”; if you played and won, you would get to build the next machine!
Another huge risk that West took was in allowing Tracy Kidder into the lab to observe everything and to document the race against time to take silicon, plastic, wires and put them together in a coherent pattern that could handle the new micro-code that they had to write at the same time as the circuits that would accept the micro-code were being wired together. Tracy Kidder was also there at the frantic debugging sessions as the hand wired circuits were brought to life, the micro-code would be inserted and bring the “Soul” of their new Eagle computer to become real.
What results is a riveting story of engineers bringing to life a computer, admittedly a bit of a “kludge”, but nonetheless under budget and on time to rescue the fortunes of Data General when the “Fountainhead Project” did indeed falter and fail.
At the end of the book, I could let out a great sigh of relief, and I felt that I had indeed watched a team of dedicated young engineers breath a “Soul” into their New Machine! I can indeed highly recommend this book as a behind the scenes look of a high tech “arms race”, exciting all the way down to the last page even for non-techies!