What to read when you’re not at OTA

**EDIT: I stand corrected, “ESR  (as Eric Raymond is most well known) did NOT write the Jargon File. He is a maintainer of it. You can see the revision history at http://www.catb.org/~esr/jargon/html/revision-history.html. The Jargon File was published as a book as the Hacker’s Dictionary (and then the New Hacker’s Dictionary).”

– thanks David!!

(correction picked up below)


I was just taking a little trip down memory lane, to the time when Matthew Cashmore helped organise the first Yahoo! open Hack Day in London, back in 2006. Which lead me to Chad Dickerson’s blog post about the 4th ever Yahoo! Hack Day and a lovely little reading list:

You may already be familiar with Eric Raymond’s writing (if not, get on that!!), but you may not know he also maintains the Jargon File, which includes a great definition of ‘Hacking

“Hacking might be characterized as ‘an appropriate application of ingenuity’. Whether the result is a quick-and-dirty patchwork job or a carefully crafted work of art, you have to admire the cleverness that went into it.”

and a brilliant Bibliography that you can add to your reading list next. You’re welcome!


Here are some other books you can read to help you understand the hacker mindset.

[Hofstadter] Gödel Escher Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid. Douglas Hofstadter. Copyright © 1979. Basic Books. ISBN 0-394-74502-7.

This book reads like an intellectual Grand Tour of hacker preoccupations. Music, mathematical logic, programming, speculations on the nature of intelligence, biology, and Zen are woven into a brilliant tapestry themed on the concept of encoded self-reference. The perfect left-brain companion to Illuminatus.

[Shea-ampersand-Wilson] The Illuminatus! Trilogy. Robert Shea and Robert Anton Wilson. DTP. ISBN 0440539811.

(Originally in three volumes: The Eye in the Pyramid, The Golden Apple, and Leviathan).

This work of alleged fiction is an incredible berserko-surrealist rollercoaster of world-girdling conspiracies, intelligent dolphins, the fall of Atlantis, who really killed JFK, sex, drugs, rock’n’roll, and the Cosmic Giggle Factor. First published in three volumes, but there is now a one-volume trade paperback, carried by most chain bookstores under SF. The perfect right-brain companion to Hofstadter’s Göodel, Escher, Bach. See Eris, Discordianism, random numbers, Church of the SubGenius.

[Adams] The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. Douglas Adams. Pocket Books. Copyright © 1981. ISBN 0-671-46149-4.

This ‘Monty Python in Space’ spoof of SF genre traditions has been popular among hackers ever since the original British radio show. Read it if only to learn about Vogons (see bogon) and the significance of the number 42 (see random numbers) — and why the winningest chess program of 1990 was called ‘Deep Thought’.

[Geoffrey] The Tao of Programming. James Geoffrey. Infobooks. Copyright © 1987. ISBN 0-931137-07-1.

This gentle, funny spoof of the Tao Te Ching contains much that is illuminating about the hacker way of thought. “When you have learned to snatch the error code from the trap frame, it will be time for you to leave.

[Levy] Hackers. Steven Levy. Anchor/Doubleday. Copyright © 1984. ISBN 0-385-19195-2.

Levy’s book is at its best in describing the early MIT hackers at the Model Railroad Club and the early days of the microcomputer revolution. He never understood Unix or the networksthough, and his enshrinement of Richard Stallman as “the last true hacker” turns out (thankfully) to have been quite misleading. Despite being a bit dated and containing some minor errors (many fixed in the paperback edition), this remains a useful and stimulating book that captures the feel of several important hacker subcultures.

[Kelly-Bootle] The Computer Contradictionary. Stan Kelly-Bootle. MIT Press. Copyright © 1995. ISBN 0-262-61112-0.

This pastiche of Ambrose Bierce’s famous work is similar in format to the Jargon File (and quotes several entries from TNHD-2) but somewhat different in tone and intent. It is more satirical and less anthropological, and is largely a product of the author’s literate and quirky imagination. For example, it defines computer science as “a study akin to numerology and astrology, but lacking the precision of the former and the success of the latter” andimplementation as “The fruitless struggle by the talented and underpaid to fulfill promises made by the rich and ignorant”; flowchart becomes “to obfuscate a problem with esoteric cartoons”. Revised and expanded from The Devil’s DP Dictionary, McGraw-Hill 1981, ISBN 0-07-034022-6; that work had some stylistic influence on TNHD-1.

[Jennings] The Devouring Fungus: Tales from the Computer Age. Karla Jennings. Norton. Copyright © 1990. ISBN 0-393-30732-8.

The author of this pioneering compendium knits together a great deal of computer- and hacker-related folklore with good writing and a few well-chosen cartoons. She has a keen eye for the human aspects of the lore and is very good at illuminating the psychology and evolution of hackerdom. Unfortunately, a number of small errors and awkwardnesses suggest that she didn’t have the final manuscript checked over by a native speaker; the glossary in the back is particularly embarrassing, and at least one classic tale (the Magic Switch story, retold here under A Story About Magic in Appendix A) is given in incomplete and badly mangled form. Nevertheless, this book is a win overall and can be enjoyed by hacker and non-hacker alike.

[Kidder] The Soul of a New Machine. Tracy Kidder. Avon. Copyright © 1982. ISBN 0-380-59931-7.

This book (a 1982 Pulitzer Prize winner) documents the adventure of the design of a new Data General computer, the MV-8000 Eagle. It is an amazingly well-done portrait of the hacker mindset — although largely the hardware hacker — done by a complete outsider. It is a bit thin in spots, but with enough technical information to be entertaining to the serious hacker while providing non-technical people a view of what day-to-day life can be like — the fun, the excitement, the disasters. During one period, when the microcode and logic were glitching at the nanosecond level, one of the overworked engineers departed the company, leaving behind a note on his terminal as his letter of resignation: “I am going to a commune in Vermont and will deal with no unit of time shorter than a season.

[Libes] Life with UNIX: a Guide for Everyone. Don Libes. Sandy Ressler. Prentice-Hall. Copyright © 1989. ISBN 0-13-536657-7.

The authors of this book set out to tell you all the things about Unix that tutorials and technical books won’t. The result is gossipy, funny, opinionated, downright weird in spots, and invaluable. Along the way they expose you to enough of Unix’s history, folklore and humor to qualify as a first-class source for these things. Because so much of today’s hackerdom is involved with Unix, this in turn illuminates many of its in-jokes and preoccupations.

[Vinge] True Names … and Other Dangers. Vernor Vinge. Baen Books. Copyright © 1987. ISBN 0-671-65363-6.

Hacker demigod Richard Stallman used to say that the title story of this book “expresses the spirit of hacking best”. Until the subject of the next entry came out, it was hard to even nominate another contender. The other stories in this collection are also fine work by an author who has since won multiple Hugos and is one of today’s very best practitioners of hard SF.

[Stephenson] Snow Crash. Neal Stephenson. Bantam. Copyright © 1992. ISBN 0-553-56261-4.

Stephenson’s epic, comic cyberpunk novel is deeply knowing about the hacker psychology and its foibles in a way no other author of fiction has ever even approached. His imagination, his grasp of the relevant technical details, and his ability to communicate the excitement of hacking and its results are astonishing, delightful, and (so far) unsurpassed.

[Markoff-ampersand-Hafner] Cyberpunk: Outlaws and Hackers on the Computer Frontier. Katie Hafner. John Markoff. Simon & Schuster. Copyright © 1991. ISBN 0-671-68322-5.

This book gathers narratives about the careers of three notorious crackers into a clear-eyed but sympathetic portrait of hackerdom’s dark side. The principals are Kevin Mitnick, “Pengo” and “Hagbard” of the Chaos Computer Club, and Robert T. Morris (see RTM, sense 2). Markoff and Hafner focus as much on their psychologies and motivations as on the details of their exploits, but don’t slight the latter. The result is a balanced and fascinating account, particularly useful when read immediately before or after Cliff Stoll’s The Cuckoo’s Egg. It is especially instructive to compare RTM, a true hacker who blundered, with the sociopathic phone-freak Mitnick and the alienated, drug-addled crackers who made the Chaos Club notorious. The gulf between wizard and wannabee has seldom been made more obvious.

[Stoll] The Cuckoo’s Egg. Clifford Stoll. Doubleday. Copyright © 1989. ISBN 0-385-24946-2.

Clifford Stoll’s absorbing tale of how he tracked Markus Hess and the Chaos Club cracking ring nicely illustrates the difference between ‘hacker’ and ‘cracker’. Stoll’s portrait of himself, his lady Martha, and his friends at Berkeley and on the Internet paints a marvelously vivid picture of how hackers and the people around them like to live and how they think.