CODE: A review four years in the making

by Richard Kolkovich

According to Amazon, I bought CODE by Charles Petzold in September of 2007. After reading about the book on a blog I have long since forgotten, I added it to my Amazon Wish List. It languished there before eventually being used to pad my cart for Free Super Saver Shipping on that fateful September day almost four years ago.

I remember starting to read CODE on a flight for a business trip. Through the first chapter, I was intrigued. Moving into chapters two through four, I was fondly recalling my favorite section in Boys’ Life magazine - Codemaster. By chapter ten, however, I was back in a classroom at Southern Poly, proving for the third time I knew how to convert from base-10 to binary and derive truth tables for circuits with my eyes closed.

CODE then took up space on my bookshelf, in a moving box and on the same bookshelf in an apartment about 375 miles north of its previous home. As I have been travelling down the road of minimalism, clearing my bookshelf has been closer to the process end than the task end. Stumbling across CODE, I decided to move it to the queue that is my nightstand. It has taken up space there until I picked it up tonight and flipped to chapter 14, marked by an American Airlines ticket stub from a business trip long ago.

“Tonight?” you ask. “How can he be writing this review TONIGHT?! There are ten more chapters to read!” Well, I made it through about a page of chapter 14 and skimmed the rest. The remaining pages in the book will not change my mind about it. The verdict? Haven’t you guessed that already?

In my college career, I had no less than three courses where I was expected to learn various binary operations (conversion from decimal, two’s complement, etc.), Boolean algebra, basic and advanced logic gates (and truth tables to go with!). Am I jaded? Sure, but I don’t think my viewpoint would change had I only had one of those courses. As a programmer, I know all of this stuff. Some of it, I deal with daily; the rest of it, I avoid like the plague. Either way, the knowledge is in my brain, lodged somewhere deep between the name of that actress in that movie and the kid that spilled his drink on my lap in the lunchroom in middle school.

Is CODE a bad book? Should the grammar Nazis (myself included) be after Petzold with pitchforks? Would copies of the book be better suited to fuel for a bum’s barrel fire than reading? Hell no. Petzold weaves a marvelous tale in the beginning to hook you, and his style continues throughout the book to make some pretty intense (to the uninitiated) material easy to grasp.

My bitterness toward the book is born purely from the fact that the blog recommendation which prompted me to purchase it in the first place was a coding blog. I cannot understand, however, why any seasoned programmer would want to read it.

Who is the book for? The ideal place for it is in a computer science survey course. The material and depth thereof is perfect for letting people know what they’ll be getting into (at least in some CS curricula). Obviously, the other ideal audience is the non-programmer - writers, techies, mechanics, significant others and parents of geeks and coders. THESE people would enjoy at least the first half of the book.

I’m glad to have finally completed the book; I hope my copy will find a loving home, as it will soon be making space on my bookshelf for something more to my tastes.