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Books We Loved

'Going Postal', by Terry Pratchett

A flow of red binary messages

Any one claiming to be a hard-core Computer Scientist would be ashamed if they had to admit they hadn't read Terry Pratchett. If you are and you haven't, then 'Going Postal' is a good place to start.

'Going Postal', is a must for anyone interested in networks. Not because it has any bearing on reality. It doesn't. It's about Discworld, a flat world that is held up on the back of elephants, and where magic reigns. Technology is starting to get a foothold though. For example, cameras, computers and movies have all been invented...though they usually have an Elf inside. Take cameras: they work because the Elf has a paint box and an easel. Take too many sunsets and he'll run out of pink! It is all incredibly silly...but it works and so does the technology.

Now telecommunications technology is gaining a foothold...Corrupt business is muscling in and the post office is struggling to survive. Who would want to send a letter when they can send a c-mail over the Clacks? The Clacks are a network of semaphore towers that allow messages to 'travel at the speed of light'. At each tower the operators 'pound keys, kick pedals and pull levers as fast as they can' to forward the message to the next tower in the network and so on to their destination. The clacks are so fashionable, people have even started carrying pocket semaphore flags everywhere they go, so they can send messages to people on the other side of the room.

"But can you write S.W.A.L.K. on a clacks? Can you seal it with a loving kiss? Can you cry tears on to a clacks, can you smell it, can you enclose a pressed flower? A letter is more than just a message."

Moist von Lipwig, a brilliant con-artist who just did one con too many, is given the job of saving the Post-office...his choice was 'Take the job or die'. Not, actually, such a good deal given the last few Postmasters all died on the job ... in the space of a few weeks.

Will the save the post office, or is the march of technology unstoppable?...and just who are the 'Smoking GNU' that you hear whispers about on the Clacks?

Reading this book has got to be the most fun way imaginable of learning about telecom networks, not to mention entrepreneurship and the effect of computers on society. None of the actual technology is the same as in our world of course, but the principle is the same transmission codes, data and control signals, simplex and duplex transmissions, image encoding, internet nodes, encryption, e-commerce, phreakers and more...they are all there, which just goes to show computer science is not just about our current computer technology. It all applies even when there is no silicon in sight.

Oh, and this is the 33rd Discworld novel, so if you do get hooked, don't expect to get much more done for the next few weeks as you catch up.