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the Complete Review
the complete review - computers

Go To

Steve Lohr

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To purchase Go To

Title: Go To
Author: Steve Lohr
Genre: Computers
Written: 2001
Length: 222 pages
Availability: Go To - US
Go To - UK
Go To - Canada
  • US subtitle: The Story of the Math Majors, Bridge Players, Engineers, Chess Wizards, Scientists and Iconoclasts - the Programmers who created the Software Revolution
  • UK subtitle: Software Superheroes - from Fortran to the Internet Age

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Our Assessment:

B : decent introduction to the personalities behind the development of the "software revolution"

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
The LA Times B- 30/12/2001 Michael Hiltzik
The NY Times A 12/12/2001 David Gelernter
The NY Times Book Rev. A- 4/11/2001 Ellen Ullman

  From the Reviews:
  • "The scale of the subject, as of any topic so large and all-encompassing, has forced the author to make choices, some of which are debatable. (...) (A)lthough Go To might appeal to the software aficionado curious about the genesis of his C++ or Linux, the general reader is likely to find it comparatively hard sledding." - Michael Hiltzik, The Los Angeles Times

  • "Go To (...) is smooth, creamy, entertaining and sometimes delightful. It is a sort of Iliad for the computer age, the epochal story of how the "software revolution" came about and who did what. The story never bogs down because Mr. Lohr tells it as a series of miniature biographies. (...) Homeric nondiscrimination is a fair price to pay for Mr. Lohr's great talent, which is journalistic: to elicit fascinating statements, lay them before us and let us decide." - David Gelernter, The New York Times

  • "What Lohr does not do is let us get to know these people. We have the facts of their lives, but the brief biographies are respectful, uncritical. (...) Lohr discusses the social views of some of his subjects, but his choice to survey 50 years doesn't let him develop these or other intriguing issues that surface. What we get in exchange is a clear, understandable introduction to a host of thorny technical concepts. An excellent primer for anyone curious about the insides of a PC" - Ellen Ullman, The New York Times Book Review

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       Go To is an odd little book. As its ambitious (or at least long) American subtitle suggest, it is The Story of the Math Majors, Bridge Players, Engineers, Chess Wizards, Scientists and Iconoclasts - the Programmers who created the Software Revolution. The focus of Lohr's book is on the people behind the programming languages (the software) that have allowed computers to do the wonderful things they can do. As many of the personalities are of the quirky-ambitious-genius type they are often interesting figures to read about. But their achievements must also be put into proper perspective -- by explaining, at the very least, what they accomplished. Describing the code underlying the operation of computers -- the software -- these people were responsible for is, apparently, considerably harder than sketching out little biographies. Lohr, in any case, doesn't try very hard to do so.
       It is a difficult balance to strike. Part of the problem is the intended audience for the book: computer professional who are familiar with the software Lohr discusses -- who could tell one programming languages from another on the basis of a few sample lines -- will likely find Lohr's focus on the personalities entirely satisfactory. It is these stories about how the various software came about that will be of interest to them, not the technical details which they presumably know far better than the journalist-author. Laypeople, however, who know how to turn on a computer but can't tell C from Java may be disappointed by how little detail there is about the software itself.
       Lohr covers programming from the beginning, and the book certainly offers a decent historical overview of programming languages. The shift from the dominance of hardware (and from the first programs, which were run literally by hand) to software is nicely covered. Lohr then covers most of the major programming languages, including FORTRAN, BASIC, Algol, all the way to Linux -- and specifically the people behind them.
       Lohr offers a few lines of code from some of these programs to demonstrate how they work, and he describes a few others. Readers might get some sense of how the programs function and what their strengths and weaknesses are, but overall the descriptions of the programming languages are far too limited. (It is, of course, a hard balance to strike in a non-technical book, but Lohr went too far in avoiding anything that might potentially scare off mathematically and computer-illiterate readers.)
       The stories of the individuals (and, in some cases, the groups) that came up with the programming languages Lohr discusses are quite entertaining. There isn't quite as much bridge-playing and chess-wizardry as the subtitle of the book suggests, but Lohr presents an interesting array of characters. Many are smart, some are brilliant, most are obsessive. They come from varied backgrounds, nicely sketched out by Lohr. Lohr usefully also at least touches upon the often overlooked computer culture in Europe.
       Of particular note is the role of luck and happenstance, as people find themselves in the right place at the right time. Most of the people involved, it must be said, would likely have achieved something of similar significance -- but many of these programming languages developed the way they did through a mix of both chance and necessity -- something Lohr brings across quite well.
       Lohr tries to convey a great deal of information in his book -- a lot of programming languages are discussed here, and many people were involved in creating them. For some of the stories -- the familiar tale of the early Microsoft days, for example -- Lohr's succinct sketches are more than adequate. For other, less well known tales (and figures and computer programs), Lohr's profiles seem far too cursory.
       A decent introductory survey, Go To does make one curious for more information. (And at least some additional information could surely have been provided in the book itself.)

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Go To: Reviews: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Steve Lohr is a journalist. He wrote Go To and co-authored the book U.S. vs. Microsoft.

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