Hackers: Heroes Of The Computer Revolution

I finally finished Steven Levy’s classic Hackers: Heroes Of The Computer Revolution. This book had been on my reading list since undergrad days! The book published in 1980s covers the early years of hacking from 1958 to 1983. The book is divided into 4 parts:

  1. True Hackers: The first known hackers at MIT AI Lab who played with the rudimentary hardware of the time and coded on punch cards. Includes Marvin Minsky, Greenblatt, Samson, Steve Russell, Stew Nelson and others. Except for Minsky, I hadn’t even heard the other names before. The significant creations of this era include the Hacker Ethic, Lisp, Spacewar and LIFE.
  2. Hardware Hackers: Soon after, a hardware hacking community started on the West Coast around the Homebrew Computer Club. Familiar names start appearing from this period. Steve “The Wiz” Wozniak’s brilliant hardware designs for Apple and Bill Gates’ ALTAIR BASIC catch the limelight. In this period, Apple grows from a garage venture to a multi-million dollar company which brings computing into homes.
  3. Game Hackers: After home computers go mainstream starts the craze of computer games. Sierra On-Line and Brøderbund are the main companies of this time (remember that this is way before Doom and its progeny appeared).
  4. The Last Of The True Hackers: Mostly centers around RMS who rues how the Hacker Ethic which started at MIT got lost in all the commercialization of computers. Since the book was published in 1984, it closes with this as the end of hacking. Little did the author know about what was to follow once the Internet became accessible!

The book is well researched and detailed. It can get a bit verbose though. There is so much computer history I hadn’t even heard about that it was worth reading just for that. Though the book is completely non-fictional, the narration reads like a suspense novel, so it’s not boring at all. Chapters 1 and 2 of the book are available under Project Gutenberg here. Recommended reading.

Into Thin Air

“With enough determination, any bloody idiot can get up this hill. The trick is to get back down alive.” – Rob Hall, about Everest.

Into Thin Air: A Personal Account Of The Mt. Everest Disaster written by mountaineer and author Jon Krakauer recounts the ill-fated expeditions that conquered Mount Everest on May 10, 1996. In a span of 72 hours, 12 lives from 4 different expeditions were lost in a storm at the peak. Jon was in one of those guided expeditions led by Rob Hall under his venture Adventure Consultants. Also, on the mountain at the same time was Scott Fischer guiding for his agency Mountain Madness (a competitor for Adventure Consultants) and a South Korean expedition. These teams were climbing from the Southeast Ridge, the easier and more popular climbing route which is on the Nepal side of Everest. At the same time an Indo-Tibetan Border Force expedition was trying to summit from the harder Northeast Ridge which is on the side of China. A spate of mistakes, inexperience, overconfidence and hypoxia induced decisions were accumulating on the climbers during their ascent to the peak. The teams successfully reached the summit and were descending when a storm blew in and it tipped the glass.

[ Photos: Taken by Jon during the ascent. The book has more photos of the climbers taken mere minutes before the storm. ]

The book is fast paced, detailed and chilling to read. Mainly focussing on Rob Hall’s and Fischer’s teams, we follow them as they acclimatize and head to Everest through the base camp and the following higher altitude camps. Mount Everest towers at 29,000+ feet (8,800+ m) above sea level, an inhuman height, even in 1996 with all modern advances. Helicopters can’t fly here (not enough lift). The air is so thin, even experienced high altitude climbers need supplemental oxygen to prevent hypoxia. Winds are cold enough to cause limb-losing-frostbite. In the May of 1996, some of the best and experienced mountaineers on the planet were on Everest and yet the mountain consumed them all. Rob Hall had conquered Mt. Everest 3 times before this. Fischer had conquered K2 (a peak considered tougher to conquer than even Everest). On his team was the insanely exceptional climber Boukreev, who had climbed 8000+ m peaks 7 times, all without using supplemental oxygen! This account is full of tales of heroism, of errors (mostly induced by hypoxia) which ended up taking lives and those of exceptional rescue and survival against all odds. In addition, Jon also provides information about the history of Everest, the various unsuccessful attempts to conquer the peak and the brave mountaineers who tried. The book is a very interesting, visceral, goosebumpy read, which left me very disturbed and with a higher respect for Mount Everest, nature and the human spirit which is ready to conquer it. A highly recommended read.

“Because it is there.” — George Mallory, on being asked why he wanted to climb Mount Everest (1922).

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