Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘technology’

26 JULY, 2012

Close to the Machine: Code and the Mesmerism of Building a World from Scratch


“…the programmer has no choice but to retreat into some private interior space, closer to the machine…”

The sociocultural relationship between humanity and technology has been the subject of equal parts dystopianism, utopianism, and layered reflection. But what of the actual, intimate, one-on-one relationship between human and machine, creator and created? That’s exactly what software engineer Ellen Ullman explores in Close to the Machine: Technophilia and Its Discontents (public library) — a fascinating look at the riveting dawn of computer revolution in 1997, those formative years of learning to translate the inexorable messiness of being human into elegant and organized code, examined through Ullman’s singular lens of being a rare woman on this largely male-driven forefront.

One particularly enchanting passage, from a chapter titled “Transactions,” captures the mesmerism of building a world from scratch — a rich portrait of the programmer archetype and a magnificent vignette of the creative process that breathes beauty into bits:

The project begins in the programmer’s mind with the beauty of a crystal. I remember the feel of a system at the early stages of programming, when the knowledge I am to represent in code seems lovely in its structuredness. For a time, the world is a calm, mathematical place. Human and machine seem attuned to a cut-diamond-like state of grace. Once in my life I tried methamphetamine: that speed high is the only state that approximates the feel of a project at its inception. Yes, I understand. Yes, it can be done. Yes, how straightforward. Oh yes, I see.

Then something happens. As the months of coding go on, the irregularities of human thinking start to emerge. You write some code, and suddenly there are dark, unspecified areas. All the pages of careful documents, and still, between the sentences, something is missing. Human thinking can skip over a great deal, leap over small misunderstandings, can contain ifs and buts in untroubled corners of the mind. But the machine has no corners. Despite all the attempts to see the computer as a brain, the machine has no foreground or background. It cannot simultaneously do something an withhold for later something that remains unknown. In the painstaking working out of the specification, line by code line, the programmer confronts all the hidden workings of human thinking.

Now begins a process of frustration. The programmer goes back to the analysts with questions, the analysts to the users, the users to their managers, the managers back to the analysts, the analysts to the programmers. It turns out that some things are just not understood. No one knows the answers to some questions. Or worse, there are too many answers. A long list of exceptional situations is revealed, things that occur very rarely but that occur all the same. Should these be programmed? Yes, of course. How else ill the system do the work human beings need to accomplish? Details and exceptions accumulate. Soon the beautiful crystal must be recut. This lovely edge and that one are gone. The whole graceful structure loses coherence. What began in a state of grace soon reveals itself to be a jumble. The human mind, as it turns out, is messy.


The programmer, who needs clarity, who must talk all day to a machine that demands declarations, hunkers down into a low-grade annoyance. It is here that the stereotype of the programmer, sitting in a dim room, growling from behind Coke cans, has its origins. The disorder of the desk, the floor; the yellow Post-it notes everywhere; the whiteboards covered with scrawl: al this is the outward manifestation of the messiness of human thought. The messiness cannot go into the program; it piles up around the programmer.

Soon the programmer has no choice but to retreat into some private interior space, closer to the machine, where things can be accomplished. The machine begins to seem friendlier than the analysts, the users, the managers. The real-world reflection of the program — who cares anymore? Guide an x-ray machine or target a missile; print a budget or a dossier; run a city subway or a disk-drive read/write arm: it all begins to blur. The system has crossed the membrane — the great filter of logic, instruction by instruction — where it has been cleansed of its linkages to actual human life.

The goal now is not whatever all the analysts first set out to do; the goal becomes the creation of the system itself. Any ethics or morals or second thoughts, any questions or muddles or exceptions, all dissolve into a junky Nike-mind: Just do it. If I just sit here and code, you think, I can make something run. When the humans come back to talk changes, I can just run the program. Show them: Here. Look at this. See? This is not just talk. This runs. Whatever you might say, whatever the consequences, all you have are words and what I have is this, this thing I’ve built, this operational system. Talk all you want, but this thing here: it works.

Close to the Machine is just as gripping throughout, an uncommon blend of absorbing prose and captivating cultural history.

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23 JULY, 2012

Trinity: A Graphic History of the Atomic Bomb


From Marie Curie to Hiroshima, or what uranium isotopes have to do with moral philosophy.

When Robert Oppenheimer was charged with recruiting the best and the brightest for a top-secret project in Los Alamos, New Mexico, he was faced with a hard sell: convince some of the most well-respected physicists in America to leave their research, uproot their families, and travel across the country for reasons that he couldn’t explain. There was only one thing he could tell them for certain: that their work would help defeat the Germans.

The dense, complicated, and fascinating story of the making of the atomic bomb is not an easy one to tell. It contains novels within novels of scientific breakthroughs and collaborations, dangerous new discoveries, government cover-ups and conspiracies, of criss-crossing allegiances, entire cities destroyed, and of course, a basic understanding of particle physics. Richard Rhodes gave the story the vigorous historical treatment in his Pulitzer Prize-winning The Making of the Atomic Bomb, and composer John Adams rendered it elegiacally in his 2005 opera Dr. Atomic.

In Trinity: A Graphic History of the First Atomic Bomb (public library), writer and illustrator Jonathan Fetter-Vorm suggests that the story of the atomic bomb is perhaps something told best not through thousands of government documents, but instead drawn on a chalkboard. The result is a concise and beautiful grasp on one of the most complex and essential events of the twentieth century — and a fine testament to the power of graphic storytelling in serious nonfiction.

Robert Oppenheimer prepares for the Trinity test.

© 2012 by Jonathan Fetter-Vorm

From the discovery of radioactivity in the lab of Marie and Pierre Curie, to the letter that Albert Einstein wrote to President Roosevelt warning about the dangers of the newly discovered nuclear fission, the events leading up to the Manhattan Project are interspersed with exacting diagrams of crashing atoms and the disruptions at the heart of the nucleus that make up the fundamentals of fission, chain reactions, fragile isotopes of uranium, and their destructive potential.

Physicists Leo Szilard and Enrico Fermi discuss nuclear fission at Columbia University, c. 1938.

© 2012 by Jonathan Fetter-Vorm

While the scientists on the project were led by Oppenheimer, the entire Manhattan Project was sealed and compartmentalized by Lieutenant General Leslie Groves, who had the unenviable task of getting thousands of civilians and scientists to abide by military rule. From plumbers, to secretaries, to the military police, few knew what they were working towards. Not even the scientists knew what the other scientists were doing, a frustrating effect of government lockdown for Oppenheimer, who was stymied without scientific collaboration.

The detonation inside of the Fat Man bomb, which was used on Nagasaki.

© 2012 by Jonathan Fetter-Vorm

Eventually, the scientists were allowed to work together in a carefully restricted area, and the work continued. The separate elements of the project soon came together: fissioning a critical mass of uranium, setting off a chain reaction, and delivering the payload.

The beginning of the chain reaction.

© 2012 by Jonathan Fetter-Vorm

Fetter-Vorm explains that the destruction and after-effects of radioactivity on the populations of Hiroshima and Nagasaki left the scientists of the Manhattan project, who had for years wondered “Can it be done?” to finally question “Should it be done?” The single-minded world of Trinity was a bell jar of furiously-working scientists, for whom success was an explosion, but not its result.

The proliferation of nuclear weapons after the dropping of the atomic bomb.

© 2012 by Jonathan Fetter-Vorm

Trinity joins The Influencing Machine, Feynman, and The Zen of Steve Jobs as a fascinating visual reimagining of a story that is at once tremendously culturally significant and thrillingly human.

Michelle Legro is an associate editor at Lapham’s Quarterly. You can find her on Twitter.

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09 JULY, 2012

The New Swiss Army Knife: Bill Gates Predicts the iPhone in 1995


What Siri and the appification of faxing have to do with the difference between envisioning and enacting.

In 1995, exactly 20 years after starting Microsoft as a 19-year-old, Bill Gates penned The Road Ahead (public library), in which he envisioned the future of computers, information, and the internet. Now, another almost 20 years later, the book stands as a lucid presentiment of much of the technology we not only use but take for granted today. Particularly fascinating is this excerpt from a chapter titled “Appliances and Applications,” in which Gates envisions what’s essentially the iPhone:

What do you carry on your person now? Probably at least keys, identification, money, and a watch. And maybe credit cards, a checkbook, traveler’s checks, an address book, an appointment book, a notepad, something to read, a camera, a pocket tape recorder, a cellular phone, a pager, concert tickets, a map, a compass, a calculator, an electronic entry card, photographs, and maybe a loud whistle to call for help.

You’ll be able to keep equivalent necessities — and more — in an information appliance I call the wallet PC. It will be about the same size as a wallet, which means you’ll be able to carry it in your pocket or purse. It will display messages and schedules and let you read or send electronic mail and faxes, monitor weather and stock reports, and play both simple and sophisticated games. At a meeting, you might take notes, check your appointments, browse information if you’re bored, or choose from among thousands of easy-to-call-up photos of your kids.


Wallet PCs with the right equipment will be able to tell you exactly where you are anyplace on the face of the earth. The Global Positioning System (GPS) satellites that orbit Earth right now broadcast signals that enable jetliners, oceangoing boats, cruise missiles, some cars — and even hikers with handheld GPS receivers — to know their exact locations. Such devices are currently available for a few hundred dollars, and eventually they’ll be built into many wallet PCs.


Off the roads, on a hike in the woods, the wallet PC will be your compass and as useful as your Swiss Army Knife.

In fact, I think of the wallet PC as the new Swiss Army knife.

Gates goes on to even presage Siri:

The wallet PC will connect you to the interactive network while you travel and tell you where you are. A voice from its built-in speaker will let you know that a freeway exit is coming up or that the next intersection has frequent accidents. It will monitor digital traffic reports and warn you that you’d better leave for the airport early, or it will suggest an alternative route. The wallet PC’s color maps will overlay your location with whatever kinds of information you want — road and weather conditions, campgrounds, scenic spots, even fast-food places. You might ask, ‘Where’s the closest Chinese restaurant that’s still open?’ and the answer will be transmitted to your wallet by wireless network.


Eventually we’ll also be able to speak to televisions, personal computers, or other information appliances. At first we’ll have to stick to a limited vocabulary, but eventually our exchanges with our appliances will become quite conversational.

So how come Gates predicted but failed to invent — or, more importantly, create a culture around — this “Swiss Army knife” of the future? “Ideas are cheap and abundant,” legendary management guru Peter Drucker famously proclaimed, “What is of value is the effective placement of those ideas into situations that develop into action.”

Steve Jobs, it seems, had it right all along: “Real artists ship.”

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