Without Me You're Nothing

September 17th, 2018 11:11 AM
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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Of additional historical reference value are Appendix D, which includes the names and mailing addresses of the era's computer magazines (Byte in Peterborough, NH; Digital Design in Brookline,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 literary Oregon Trail

June 27th, 2016 11:07 PM
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Oregon Trail has been adapted, reimagined, and rebooted more times than we can count. It's become a live-action role-playing game, a movie trailer, and a zombie apocalypse. But at no point has the real-life journey of American pioneers circa 1836 been recreated — until now.

The Oregon Trail is a hardcover book released last summer, with the paperback hitting just this month on June 7. With a title like that, I assumed it to be an ode to the computer game that introduced a generation of students to personal computers. But this book — the fifth from Rinker Buck, born in 1950 — is something far more daring. Here's an Amazon.com synopsis from Jon Foro:

Well into middle-age, Rinker Buck found himself divorced, at the edge of bankruptcy, and growing blunt through the twin demons of ennui and alcohol … On a whim, he found himself in a museum at the head of the Oregon Trail, realizing that even as a fairly serious American history buff, he knew virtually nothing about the pivotal era when 400,000 pioneers made their way West in quests for land, gold, and new lives. On a much bigger whim, Buck decided to travel the 2,000 miles of ruts and superseding highways in a mule-driven wagon on his own “crazyass” quest for a new beginning. The result is a dense-yet-entertaining mix of memoir, history and adventure, as Buck– joined by another brother, Nick, and his “incurably filthy” dog, Olive Oyl–struggle with the mechanical, environmental, and existential challenges posed by such an unusually grueling journey. Buck is an engaging writer, and while the book pushes 500 pages, the story never lags. By the end, you’ll know more about mules than you ever thought you would (just enough, actually), and you’ll have a better perspective on the Trail, its travelers, and the role it played in shaping the modern United States. (And is Rinker Buck not a pioneer-worthy name for an tale such as this?)

The book is available now on Amazon.com. Here's an excerpt of the author reading from the audiobook:

I'm not a huge fan of history, but The Oregon Trail: A New American Journey hits a sweet spot by intersecting with real and digital history. Even if the book never once mentions the game, I may need to pick it up to see what Buck's experience was and how it compares to that of the early settlers after two hundred years.