Without Me You're Nothing

September 17th, 2018 11:11 AM
Filed under History;
1 comment.

The spice must flow… as must the electrons. After Frank Herbert wrote the seminal science-fiction novel Dune in 1965, he shifted his sights from the far future to the near future, with the goal of demystifying a new technological arrival: the personal computer. The non-fiction result was Without Me You're Nothing: The Essential Guide to Home Computers.

Written by Herbert with assistance from Max Barnard, "a computer professional who handles both machines and programming and who designed Herbert's own home system", the book is a platform-agnostic guide to the basic functions of computer hardware, software, and programming. For example, the book breaks down the foreign vocabulary of information technology into more familiar concepts. Terms such as "input", "output", "CPU", and "memory" are instead referred to as "information", "action", "switching", and "storage", respectively. "Use the funny words if you must," says Herbert.

Without Me You're Nothing (is that Herbert talking to the computer — or to the readers?) was published in 1980 in hardcover (ISBN 0671412876) and a year later in paperback (ISBN 0671439642), both of which are readily available from libraries, Amazon.com, and eBay. Another paperback edition was released under the name The Home Computer Handbook in 1981 (ISBN 057503050X) and 1985 (ISBN 0450056317). These computer books form two of the six non-fiction books Herbert wrote in his lifetime.

Despite the multiple editions, I had never heard of this book until a friend introduced me to it. I was astonished that a science fiction author would branch out to something so practical and no-nonsense. William Touponce, author of the 1988 book Frank Herbert, made the connection:

[Herbert's] dominant intellectual impulse was not to mystify or set himself up as a prophet, but the opposite – to turn what powers of analysis he had (and they were considerable) over to his audience. And this impulse is as manifest in Dune… as it is in his computer book, Without Me You're Nothing.

Being nonspecific about what computers the reader uses, the book makes little to no reference about the Apple II specifically. The exception is a black-and-white photo of the Apple II opening Chapter 3: Meet Your New Machine — followed immediately by a photo of the Atari 400.

Of additional historical reference value are Appendix D, which includes the names and mailing addresses of the era's computer magazines (Byte in Peterborough, NH; Digital Design in Brookline, MA; ROM of Hampton, CT); and Appendix E: Microcomputer Accessories and Manufacturers, listing everything from Apple (770 Welch Road in Palo Alto) to Data General Corp (Southborough, MA) to Radio Shack (Fort Worth, TX).

I haven't read the book in-depth — to be honest, I wasn't a big fan of Dune — but it's nonetheless a fascinating artifact of how early computers were perceived and deciphered by early users, grounding even someone accustomed to looking among the stars.

A computer history tour with Woz

December 6th, 2010 10:49 AM
Filed under History, Mainstream coverage, Steve Wozniak;
Comments Off on A computer history tour with Woz

The Computer History Museum in Mountain View, California, will unveil in January 2011 an exhibit entitled "Revolution: The First 2000 Years of Computing". The press got a sneak peek last week, with their tour guide being a historical figure himself: no less than Steve Wozniak.

Imagine what an experience that must've been! Seeing the computers that launched an industry and revolutionized a world, described by the man who was there to make it happen. Such narration should be captured and offered as an audio tour to future visitors of the museum.

Fortunately, this rare experience was documented by the many journalists in attendance. Harry McCracken of Technologizer.com took several photos, focusing more on his tour guide than on the exhibit himself. Along the way, Woz commented on several computers that influenced his design of the Apple II, even stopping to pose with some of his own creations that are included in the museum.

As the group walked among machines capable of so little compared to today's computing behemoths, McCracken observed that Woz "again and again … came back to praising engineering minimalism — accomplishing a task with the fewest possible parts and the simplest possible code." It's a design philosophy that I expect is shared among many Apple II developers to this day. For example, in an interview with Juiced.GS in December 2009, Alex Freed of Carte Blanche fame said, "Electronic design is my day job and I work with considerably more advanced devices, but some ideas from the Apple II days are still valid. For example, I always try to find a way to use minimum hardware to do the job."

For the Mercury News, David Cassidy provided more prose than photos and was more reflective than reportorial, wondering if Steve Wozniak isn't more deserving of the fame and adoration that is normally heaped upon Apple's other co-founder, Steve Jobs.

And Robert Scoble has a 360-degree panoramic photograph taken as Woz was presenting before an original Apple-1.

UPDATE: Therese Poletti shares this video from the tour:

UPDATE 2: Mark Milian at CNN also has a video:

UPDATE 3: Peter Watson pointed me to this series of videos from ZDNet:

Woz seems to be everywhere these days, but one has to make onself available to such opportunities. The Computer History Museum is one of many historical sites throughout Silicon Valley that I would be thrilled to see. My employer, Computerworld, has its offices in Framingham, Massachusetts, about an hour west of Boston. But we're affiliated with both PC World and Macworld, which make their home in San Francisco. Computerworld has at least one employee in that location, and I can't help but think that maybe it'd be mutually beneficial for me to be the second.