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Go To: The Story of the Math Majors, Bridge Players, Engineers, Chess Wizards, Maverick Scientists, and Iconoclasts - the Programmers Who Created the Software Revolution [Paperback]

Steve Lohr
4.2 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (18 customer reviews)
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Book Description

Oct. 10 2002
In Go To, Steve Lohr chronicles the history of software from the early days of complex mathematical codes mastered by a few thousand to today's era of user-friendly software and over six million professional programmers worldwide. Lohr maps out the unique seductions of programming, and gives us an intimate portrait of the peculiar kind of genius that is drawn to this blend of art, science, and engineering, introducing us to the movers and shakers of the 1950s and the open-source movement oftoday. With original reporting and deft storytelling, Steve Lohr shows us how software transformed the world, and what it holds in store for our future.


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Exploring the strange and hazy days before nerds ruled the earth, tech writer Steve Lohr's Go To: The Story of the Math Majors, Bridge Players, Engineers, Chess Wizards, Maverick Scientists and Iconoclasts--The Programmers Who Created the Software Revolution is a great introduction to the softer side of the Information Age. Sure, he covers the Microsoft and Apple stories, but he also digs deeply to learn how Fortran and COBOL were developed and ventures into the open-source world. Lohr is adept at personalising the process of software development, which serves to make some of the business and technical decisions more comprehensible to the lay reader.

IBM conducted yearly employee reviews called the "Performance Improvement Program" or Pip, for short. The Pip, like most such programs today, followed a rigid formula, with numbers and rankings. [John] Backus decided the Pip system was ill suited for measuring the performance of his programmers, so his approach was to mostly ignore it. One afternoon, for example, he called Lois Haibt over for a chat. He talked about her work, said she had been doing an excellent job and then pushed a small piece of paper across the desk saying, "This is your new salary," a pleasing raise, as Haibt recalled. As she got up to leave, Backus mentioned in passing, "In case anyone should ask, this was your Pip."

Since he starts early in the history of the field, Lohr gets to share some of the oddities of the days before programming was professionalised. Developers were kids, musicians, game experts, and practically anyone who showed an interest. Many readers will be surprised and delighted to read of the strong recruitment of women and their many contributions to software development--an aspect of geek history, which has long been neglected. Go To should break down a few preconceptions while building up a new respect for the coders who guided us into the 21st century. --Rob Lightner --This text refers to the Hardcover edition.

From Publishers Weekly

About a year too late to take advantage of public hunger for behind-the-scenes computer biz accounts, New York Times technology correspondent Lohr's learned narrative never quite engages the reader. A series of portraits describes the unique band of outsiders who commanded the lumbering, room-sized computers of the postwar era. These men played a headache-inducing game called "blind chess," built their own stereos and could detect a computer malfunction by sound. The book kicks off in the 1950s at IBM, where several of these visionaries were trying to make the company's computers more efficient. Men like John Backus (one is tempted to call him the Henry Ford of programming) created the Fortran assembly language to automate and make the programming process more efficient. With increased business interest in computers in the late 1950s, John McCarthy, who cofounded MIT's artificial intelligence lab in 1959, initiated Cobol, or Common Business Oriented Language, to allow people to program using English. After the 1960s, software started getting more headlines from an industry and a press that previously only cared about new and faster hardware. By the 1980s, companies like Microsoft were creating business empires out of programming. For a book that claims to tell the story of the software revolution's instigators, it's frustratingly short on characterization. There's the occasional flourish, like the description of Charles Simonyi who did groundbreaking work at Xerox's PARC research facility and essentially created Microsoft Word showing up for debugging sessions in a special "debugging outfit": a black net shirt and translucent skin-tight black pants. But this account of reputed fringe visionaries lacks flash and loopiness. National author tour.

Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information, Inc.

--This text refers to the Hardcover edition.

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Customer Reviews

Most helpful customer reviews
5.0 out of 5 stars Don't be so harsh! Nov. 21 2003
Format:Paperback
This book isn't aimed specifically at experienced programmers, but rather at the general public. My mom could read it. That doesn't even mean it's a bad book if you are a programmer. It's an amazing software-history crash course and a must for younger programmers. The emphasis is on the people and concepts, not on technicalities. This is why I disagree with the other reviewer who suggested "The Design and Evolution of C++" instead of this book. While Stroustrup's document is also a must for any serious programmer, it only covers the history of C++, and his motivations for particular features of the language. GOTO on the other hand gives a birds-eye view of software and software development from the ENIAC to open-source Linux in a simple and concise way.
I found the writing to be good and funny, making it an enjoyable read. Quotes are used very well and the information that each page is full of is well layed out on the length of the book. The author stays objective and doesn't impose you his opinion as some of the more "controversial" topics are often revisited from different perspectives, giving you the chance to make your own mind.
An enjoyable and instructive book.
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3.0 out of 5 stars interesting, not fluent Jan. 25 2003
Format:Paperback
Everybody will find something of interest in this history of software engineering. I'm not much of an historian, so I particularly enjoyed learning some of the historical perspective. For example, there's a great description of the group that created COBOL, a now reviled business programming language. They were the senior programmers of their day. Some of them had been working for four years! Do you know what kind of dreck I was writing when I had been working for four years? Suddenly COBOL seems like quite an accomplishment.
Despite the interest of the material and the well-chosen breadth of coverage, this book does suffer from a strange lack of fluency. Part of the problem is that the prose has some of the wooden quality that tends to emerge when reporters write full-length books. (Though let me note that some reporters, like George Johnson or Malcolm Gladwell, write superlative books.) But the greater problem is that this book was written by somebody a little too removed from the field; it's like hearing a history of computing from your slightly technophobic uncle, the one who pretty much peaked with the advent of cordless phones. It's hard for me to explain exactly why it seems this little bit awkward. It's not a technical problem -- I don't expect any concrete details in a book like this. The problem is more a lack of cultural fluency, as revealed by such minor slips as references to "work stations" (usually spelled without a space) or "the hitchhiker's guide to the universe" (my copy says "galaxy"). Part of the problem may also be that the author's editors failed him, letting phrases like "he would took advantage" or "the experience did not little to alter" slip through.
(NB - I write my reviews before reading others, and it was interesting to note how much my impressions agreed with everybody else's when it came time to post.)
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5.0 out of 5 stars Explains the beginning of software for computres June 19 2002
By A Customer
Format:Hardcover
The history of computer software, told by a senior technology writer for the New York Times. Software arose after WWII along with the first computers. Early programming was handled by squads of technicians, mostly young women, who custom-wired early machines such as ENIAC for each new calculation. Then John von Neumann, a mathematician working for the Manhattan Project, postulated the idea of a "stored program," permanent instructions built into the machine. This concept allowed engineers to build a general-purpose contraption into which programmers could feed instructions on punch cards or paper tape for specific tasks. The next step came in the mid-1950s, when an IBM team led by John Backus created Fortran. A strange blend of shorthand and math that allowed ordinary users to write programs, Fortran (a contraction of "formula translator") opened the door to almost everything that has followed. Lohr profiles the members of Backus's team and gives a taste of how the language works. He follows the same formula with other languages from Cobol (designed as a business applications language) to Unix (which led the way to non-mainframe computing). BASIC taught millions of ordinary users the rudiments of programming on simple home machines. Later, the software emphasis shifted to applications: word processors, spreadsheets, and database managers. A more sophisticated generation of home users now happily program in Java and HTML. Today's frontier is the Open Source movement, whose adherents tinker with the code of such software as Linux. The rhetoric of open source is revolutionary, with the likes of Microsoft as the class enemy, but the battle is far from over. Stay tuned. A clear and colorful look at the people and programs that have shaped the computer era.
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5.0 out of 5 stars The Wordly Philosophers' of Software Feb. 27 2002
By A Customer
Format:Hardcover
He never says so, but Steve Lohr has set out to do for the profession of
computer programming what Robert Heilbroner did for economics in his "The
Worldly Philosophers," ie explain the discipline mainly through the stories of its
leading practitioners and the problems they addressed.
For the most part, he succeeds admirably. There are several fine
histories of computing, but none until 'Go To' that focused entirely on
software. Its narrative is the evolution of programming over the years and it
covers a lot of ground, unlike the more focused approach found in books like
Steven Levy's "Hackers" (the hardware and software innovation that came from
MIT) or Michael Hiltzik's "Dealers of Lightning" (Xerox PARC as the
intellectual birthplace of personal computing).
Lohr nods to previous developments, but his narrative really begins with the
team led by John Backus that developed Fortran. It continues into the 1960s and
the sense of limitless horizons at the time, with its enthusiasm for artificial
intelligence. Then comes COBOL, the achievement and disillusionment of IBM's
360 Operating System, the "software crisis" of the late 1960s and the rise of
software engineering. And on it goes, the story of Ken Thompson and Dennis
Ritchie developing Unix and C at Bell Labs, Bjarne Stroustrup creating C++,
James Gosling leading the development of Java.
The well-worked ground is handled in non-obvious ways. Bill Gates and Microsoft
are seen through the prism of the rise of BASIC from its Dartmouth origins to
its Wild West days of the early microcomputer industry to its domestication as
Visual Basic.
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Most recent customer reviews
4.0 out of 5 stars README
This book could have been better edited and better organized, but it is still worth reading. "GO TO" (which probably should have been called "goto" or... Read more
Published on Feb. 12 2004 by Nathan Moore
5.0 out of 5 stars engaging history of a difficult but important subject
This book ranks among the best in the history of technology and one of the few that specifically addresses software. Read more
Published on Dec 22 2003 by Gaunilon
3.0 out of 5 stars Good book ruined by poor editing.
"Hitchhiker's Guide to the _Universe_"?
" ... because 31 in octal is 25 in decimal." instead of " ... because OCT 31 == DEC 25"? Read more
Published on July 22 2002 by Joseph S. Grossberg
4.0 out of 5 stars Programmers must read!
This book gives a detailed history of the development of IT industry since 1950. From Fortran, Cobol, C, Visual Basic, C++, Java to HTML, UNIX, .... Read more
Published on May 12 2002 by Donald Hsu
3.0 out of 5 stars Thin
The best thing I can say about this book is that it is relatively short. Lohr profiles a dozen or so software pioneers. Why does he pick some and not others? Read more
Published on March 18 2002
2.0 out of 5 stars A collection of stories, poorly edited and without coherence
As a lifelong software developer, avid history buff, and now, author, I looked forward to this book, as it combines the two great loves of my life - code and history. Read more
Published on Feb. 17 2002 by Michael F. Maddox
3.0 out of 5 stars journalism, not history
Covers a lot of ground in a very shallow way, without any overarching theme or thesis. A few interesting tidbits about a lot of people, written in that journalistic style that has... Read more
Published on Feb. 14 2002 by Jessica Weissman
5.0 out of 5 stars Get This Book!!!
This book contains a remarkable set of stories about about truly important innovations in the field of software. The stories are lucidly constructed. Read more
Published on Feb. 11 2002 by Steven Miller
4.0 out of 5 stars Frustrating, but, in the end, worthwhile
Whether you cut code for a living or just have an avocational interest in software and its history, Steve Lohr's book is the best compendium I've come across. Read more
Published on Jan. 25 2002 by Paul M. DiNardo
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