[TUHS] Book Recommendation

G. Branden Robinson g.branden.robinson at gmail.com
Tue Nov 16 14:08:59 AEST 2021

At 2021-11-15T22:16:41-0500, Douglas McIlroy wrote:
> While waiting to see the full text, I've poked around the index for
> subjects of interest. It certainly is copious, and knows about a lot
> of things that I don't.
> The authors make a reasonable choice in identifying the dawn of
> "modern computing" with Eniac and relegating non-electronic machines
> to prehistory.

Just so long as the antikythera mechanism is in there... ;-)

> Among programming languages, Fortran, which changed the nature of
> programming, is merely hinted at (buried in the forgettable Fortran
> Monitoring System), while its insignificant offspring PL/I is present.

PL/I was important enough to rate presentation in _The Elements of
Programming Style_.  :P  I have gotten the impression that it was a
language that was beloved by no one.

> (Possibly this is an indexing oversight. John Backus, who led the
> Fortran project, is mentioned quite early in the book.) Algol, Lisp,
> Simula and Smalltalk quite properly make the list, but Basic rates
> more coverage than any of them.

It's hard to overstate the impact of BASIC on the first generation of
people who grew up with computers in the home instead of encountering
them only later in a time-sharing environment with professional
operators and administrators.

This is not because BASIC was a high quality language, especially as
stripped down by Microsoft and other implementors.  On 8-bit boxes with
no memory protection and no privilege structure, it taught one a lot
about absolute liberty and the absolute consequences thereof.  We power
cycled machines with a frequency that would have horrified the staff of
any computing center.

Everybody knew there were bigger, better, or faster languages out there,
but they were priced commercially and marketed at professionals.  The
same was usually true of editor/assembler/linker packages.  But BASIC
was packed-in on ROM chips and always available.  And you could always
assemble your own opcodes (or get listings of hex bytes from hobbyist
magazines) and "poke" them into memory--a good way to learn and to
polish that machine reset button to a shine.

At one time, it was considered good sport to ridicule people whose first
programming language was BASIC; after a while I figured out that this
was a form of hazing, similar to the snotty attitudes adopted by a
subset of student employees who got access to group "wheel" on at least
one university-owned machine, lorded it over undergraduates, and who
kept the existence of or access to Volume 2 of the Unix Programmer's
Manual a secret.  ("If you can't learn the system just from the man
pages, you must be pretty dumb.")  Such was my first exposure to BSD and
SunOS partisans.

After a while, I learned they weren't _all_ like that...

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