On Paper and on Tape

Once upon a time -- long before being sold alongside TV sets and vacuum cleaners -- computers were huge, ungainly things. They cost far more than one person could afford. Large universities had them. The military had them. Computer scientists labored into the night on terminals connected to them. It was in these eclectic, fluorescent environments that the ARPANET, the immediate predecessor of the Internet, was born.

Adroitly told by the local wife-husband team of Katie Hafner and Matthew Lyon, Where Wizards Stay Up Late ( Simon & Schuster, $24 hard) is an insightful and down-to-earth account of the Internet's modest and remarkable beginnings. Set in the late Sixties and early Seventies, the Net began as a government-funded project to connect a disparate handful of computers in research labs across the country to share resources.

Unlike a typical telephone conversation, in which a steady stream of information passes on a predictable path almost directly from sender to receiver, information on the Net is broken down into "packets" which travel among a vast, interconnected lattice before being recombined at the receiving end. Upshot: Handling messages becomes trickier, requiring computers to assemble and disassemble messages from their component packets, but having many connections from one machine to another means that a failure at one point in the network doesn't keep a message from getting through. You simply pick a different route and send it again. This notion of a "distributed network" is the technological innovation at the heart of the Internet.

Though first developed in the early 1960s, taking the concept from notebook sketches to a working system was an uphill battle. AT&T thought the scheme -- in sharp contrast to their heavily centralized telephone network -- was too risky, unworkable, and foolish. Computer giants Control Data and IBM thought it too expensive. The armed services jostled for ideological control of it.

And so, the necessary conditions for rapid technological growth were set. The ARPANET designers would have to innovate: They turned to a small consulting firm to design the packet-switching software, retrofitted off-the-shelf computers for the hardware, and relied on a small army of graduate students around the country to deploy and test it.

When they were finished, they had created something miraculous: A working network that had no central switch, was robust (if not entirely crash-proof), and which could be monitored from any point on the network, something even mighty AT&T could not accomplish.

Interesting anecdotes and trivia appear throughout Wizards. Contrary to popular legend, the Net was not designed as part of a nuclear war survival scenario. E-mail was not envisioned by its founders, but was an unsanctioned "hack" that led to the explosive growth of the network. The choice of the now-ubiquitous "@" symbol is also explained here, as are the origins of many protocols still used on the Internet today.

Nearly 30 years later, we're only just beginning to realize the implications of a worldwide network. The "killer app" at the turn of the millenium isn't the Web browser, it's the entire rebirth of communications -- the multitude of ways we can now interact with other people. No longer just highfalutin' replacements for the typewriter and calculator, desktop computers have grown up. They've become the delivery mechanism for feelings, thoughts, ideas, and information shared among friends and strangers alike around the world. That millions of us now send e-mail and browse the Web every day, almost as easily as picking up the phone or watching TV, is a testament to the highway engineers who set out to design a digital computer network and wound up planting the seeds of a communications revolution.

Of these founding fathers, few have profited from the experiment, and none have become household names. And so it perhaps should be, for the Internet was destined to outgrow any of its components, by design.

Hafner (a Newsweek technology editor and coauthor of Cyberpunk) and Lyon have done a remarkable job sorting through the many players involved to present a story that is illuminating, even inspiring. Despite an inevitable abundance of acronyms in the text, anyone curious about the history of the Net will find a lot to learn and much to enjoy in this book. -- Laxman Gani

For me, the prototypical audio book is a Robert James Waller selection, bought by Aunt Molly, to pass the time during drives to Dallas or Houston in her Volvo. This scenario doesn't work with a Henry Rollins selection, though, particularly this one, for somewhere around Waco or Columbus you'd be overcome with the urge, in an adolescent fury fueled by his relentless ranting, to kill yourself kamikaze style by plowing into another car -- preferably another Volvo. Or a cop.

For most of the two-hour offering in Everything (2-13-61/Thirsty Ear Records), a single chapter (!) from his book Eye Scream, Henry Rollins lives up to his unofficial nickname, "I'm Angry." Rollins hates: random violence, heroin users, Crips, Bloods, certain women (or, at certain points, all women), the government, and especially cops, and he's not shy about expressing it. While he makes the occasional witty observation, most of the two-cassette release is a cyclical torrent built around the word "everything," which doubles here as both an uber-structure housing the evils of the world and the glimmering promise of something better.

The jazzy punctuations from musicians Rashied Ali and Charles Gayle appear in odd places, sometimes augmenting sections in a thematically appropriate way, but often just skronking for the sake of skronking. Yet Ali and Gayle are the most artistic beings on the tape, for Rollins, despite the self-made reputation as an important spoken word artist, isn't doing anything here that any semi-articulate, embittered guy couldn't do after putting away a couple of beers. His pot-shots are either so obvious or so overblown that there's no compelling reason to get to the 40-minute second tape, although that by itself would be an almost bearable distillation of the Rollins rant. The problem lies in listening to the 80-minute first tape first, which moves with the single-mindedness and sophistication of a steamroller on a patch of fresh asphalt. By the time the second tape rolls around, He's Mad as Hell and He's Not Gonna Take It Anymore. And unless you're a serious Rollins devotee, you won't want to take it anymore, either. -- Phil West

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