Book: Crystal Fire

Crystal Fire: The Invention of the Transistor and the Birth of the Information Age by Michael Riordan and Lillian Hoddeson

We live in the age of the transistor. One estimate is that humanity has made over 2.9 sextillion transistors (sextillion is 1,000,000,000,000,000,000,000). This number is amazing, though whenever I think about counting numbers, I remember, Agravados number and am humbled by complexity of biology.

Crystal Fire is a history of the development of the transistor. As such it focuses on the three who won the Nobel Prize for this discovery: Bardeen, Braittain, and Shockley. The book is well done, and a good introduction to the story. I guess because I’ve read a lot about the early history of the transistor I was, however, a little bit disappointed. The book doesn’t delve into the Julius Edgar Lilienfeld’s early patent (though it is mentioned as a motivator for the speed with which the transistor was patented), a story which I find fascinating. It also doesn’t discuss the “second” invention, the Transistron. It also doesn’t give as thorough accounting of Shockley’s wild time after the invention of the point contact transistor in which he needed to make his own ideas real. I did learn a bit more about Braittain, probably the most famous graduate of Washington state’s Whitman college (and definitely the most famous person from the Okanogan valley).

Recommended for a good introduction to the early invention of the transistor.

Book: Moore’s Law

Moore’s Law: The Life of Gordon Moore, Silicon Valley’s Quiet Revolutionary by Arnold Thackray, David Brock and Rachel Jones.

Gordon Moore once said my name. I’ve always been pretty stoked about that. Mostly because he was at the center of one of the greatest technological revolutions that humanity has seen: the rise of the silicon microprocessor. This book is a detailed biography, including lots of back story on Moore’s family. Moore’s personal life and even his personality was, in some ways, not too remarkable. This is not a book full of amusing stories, but instead focuses on the long pull of Moore’s life work. I came away from it with a greater appreciation of how complicated the story of the integrated circuit really was. We forget how long and how many challenges were overcome over the many decades of the rise of Moore’s law. Seeing how these were attacked was illuminating. The attack was generally first by putting on the scientist hat to try to understand, and then pivoting to engineering to see how to fix it, but often was a messy mix of the two, with an amazing amount of prior “expertise” necessary to make progress.

Recommended for nerds of the history of computing.

Book: Amusing Ourselves To Death

Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business by Neil Postman

This book caused me to uninstall multiple apps from my phone. I suppose that is a strong recommendation. It also inspired Roger Waters album “Amused to Death”, which I am quite fond of. While some of the book is dated by its focus on television, the central ideas about how technology has shaped culture feel even more relevant today.

We were keeping our eye on 1984. When the year came and the prophecy didn’t, thoughtful Americans sang softly in praise of themselves. The roots of liberal democracy had held. Wherever else the terror had happened, we, at least, had not been visited by Orwellian nightmares.

But we had forgotten that alongside Orwell’s dark vision, there was another – slightly older, slightly less well known, equally chilling: Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World. Contrary to common belief even among the educated, Huxley and Orwell did not prophesy the same thing. Orwell warns that we will be overcome by an externally imposed oppression. But in Huxley’s vision, no Big Brother is required to deprive people of their autonomy, maturity and history. As he saw it, people will come to love their oppression, to adore the technologies that undo their capacities to think.