Cynthia Dyer-Bennet (cdb) Wed 14 Jan 04 12:40
Joining us today is writer Ellen Ullman. Ellen started working as a computer programmer in the late 1970s. Twenty years later, she began writing about her experiences in the industry, describing the effects of technology on both its practitioners, the programmers and software engineers, and on society at large. She is the author of the 1997 memoir _Close to the Machine_ , winner of a Salon Book Award, and of the recent novel _The Bug_, which was selected by The New York Times as a Notable Book for 2003. She is a frequent contributor to Harper's and Salon, and is currently a contributing editor at The American Scholar, where she writes the "Scientific Method" column each autumn. Our own Laura Miller will be leading the conversation. Laura Miller is a journalist and critic living in New York. She is a co-founder of Salon.com, where she is currently a staff writer, and a columnist for the New York Times Book Review. Her work has appeared in the New York Times, Time Magazine, the Wall Street Journal, Entertainment Weekly and other publications. She is the editor of the "The Salon.com Reader's Guide to Contemporary Authors" (Penguin, 2000). Welcome, Ellen and Laura! Pull up a chair and make yourself comfy.
s 205 (lauram) Wed 14 Jan 04 15:32
Thanks, Cynthia. Since I'm a literary critic, I'm mostly going to asking Ellen questions about writing, but if anyone wants to leap in to ask her about programming, please feel free at any time. If we all work together, we can probably cover all the aspects of our Renaissance woman guest. Ellen, this is the first fiction you've published after making a name for yourself as an essayist. Lots of writers work in both modes, of course, but it's always struck me as a difficult transition, going from just, well, saying what you think, to orchestrating an elaborate illusion and making it convincing. What were some of the challenges for you in doing that. Did you have any other writers you used as models?
s 205 (lauram) Wed 14 Jan 04 15:34
Oh, and sorry for the typos, guys. I forgot you can't edit this stuff after it's posted.
Ellen Ullman (ullman) Wed 14 Jan 04 17:57
I had a difficult transition, Laura, but not for the reason you mention. I never found essay-writing to be a matter of "just saying what you think." When working on an essay, I always have the feeling that it has to be a story, that the piece has to show the unfolding of a thought, how I came to the ideas, and how I feel about those ideas, not just the final "here is what I have concluded." I'm writing now for The American Scholar, and this is giving me a chance to further explore the notion of the essay as a thought-story, a sensibility *moving* over a collection of thoughts to come to some conclusion,which itself may be temporary, since life of course keeps moving. That said, I had an awful time writing The Bug after Close To Then Machine. I had to give up the authority of the this-really-happened. And it took me years to find a fictional voice that had appeared to have the authority that a nonfiction voice naturally has. My model for the essay has always been Cythia Ozick. She is passionately smart. Or intellectually passionate. Or any way it's possible to express the sort of mental intensity that becomes emotional by nature of the sheer force it exerts. For fiction, my models have always been spare writers -- Kafka, Sebald, Coetzee -- thought I myself, to my horror, am not really a spare writer. There is a big problem when your taste doesn't match your own inclinations. Finally I just had to let go and let the story be what it would be, let myself speak in the voice that was most fluent, for better or for worse.
s 205 (lauram) Thu 15 Jan 04 08:56
There's also creating the characters. I've heard you say that most readers just assume that Roberta, the tester character in "The Bug," is based on you, while you feel that Ethan is a closer match. Probably they're making the assumption that a female character must be the avatar of the female author, but I can understand the mistake all the same. Roberta like you, is a person with literary and cultural interests, while Ethan is almost blinkered, focused on his work and his artificial life project. I wonder if they're both not a version of you, often in serious conflict
Ellen Ullman (ullman) Thu 15 Jan 04 11:19
Yes, you have it right: they're both me. And yes, often in serious conflict. The literary and engineering impulses are at odds -- intrinsically, I think. I mean, what moves me as a engineer is the desire to get something to *work*. It's full of fiddling and exploration, like writing, but ultimately engineering's pleasure is to create something functional. Fiction, on the other hand, is purposeless, in the best sense. The only way it "works" is in communicating the interior experience of being alive. (That is, when it does indeed work, which of course is for the reader to decide.)
s 205 (lauram) Fri 16 Jan 04 11:12
Some of the scenes that most stick out in my memory of the novel are meeting scenes at the software company where Roberta and Ethan work. In particular, there's a great one where the venture capitalists who are funding the project have come in to get the deadline moved up and Ethan is called into his bosses office to talk about it. The only place to sit is one of those big bouncy inflatable exercise balls, and Ethan has to struggle to keep his balance on it while sweating out the meeting (he's not good with people and he starts to worry that he'll be caught in some of his resume exaggerations, or say something that the vc's won't like). Can you tell us a bit about how that scene came to be?
Ellen Ullman (ullman) Fri 16 Jan 04 12:15
That scene is completely made up. It's a melange of things: my experiences with venture capitalists, exercise balls and toys I'd seen on a visit to Google in its early days, meetings I'd had with a boss for whom I worked at one time, my own experiences with the absurdities of software scheduling. All I knew when I sat down to write the scene was that Ethan was someone motivated by the fear of humiliation, and that he had to be struggling against appearing ridiculous. It's odd. That scene is one of the few places in the book where I allowed myself to simply let things go and see how silly a scene could get before it got annoying. It felt risky while I wrote it. But maybe I should be doing more of that (it occurs to me now).
Sharon Lynne Fisher (slf) Fri 16 Jan 04 12:57
I was gonna say, as soon as I saw the exercise ball -- Google. Ellen, how the heck are you? It's been years. Are you still in the city? I'm spacing out now on the book you wrote a few years back that got so much attention, but what sort of effect has that had on your life since? and how's your kitty?
Cynthia Dyer-Bennet (cdb) Fri 16 Jan 04 13:13
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Ari Davidow (ari) Fri 16 Jan 04 13:26
Ellen, welcome. I have to say that I really, really enjoyed reading "The Bug." I think that, to some degree, I liked it more than the essays in "Close to the machine." Often, in the engagement with how working with technology affects (or doesn't affect) the way we are, who we are, I found myself nodding the way I do when reading a particularly good Richard Powers novel ("Plowing the Dark," for example). In that regard, I especially value that the book seems to be about technology and people who work with technology, as much as it is a dramatic story. Having said that, the last chapter or two felt completely anticlimactic. It's as though once we know the fate of one of the main characters the story was over. You went through the motions of wrapping loose ends up neatly, but the point was what happened to that character, and then, I dunno what happened? Am I the only person who feels that the novel ended and you kept writing? How did you feel about the ending?
s 205 (lauram) Fri 16 Jan 04 16:19
Sorry to skip the topic around, but I forgot to mention one particularly nice detail about that scene wtih the toy-filled office, how most of the toys have an aggressive purpose, even as their playing at being playful, you might say. it's a squirt-gun, one of those suction-cup bow and arrow sets, etc. The one toy that might seem innocently exhuberant, a mechanical bear that claps when it's wound up, gets ritually wound up by someone who's made a mistake. I didn't even notice this the first time around, but it v. deftly undermines the menace in that workplace, the way the people seem divided against each other and dangerous to each other despite the rompish facade.
Ellen Ullman (ullman) Fri 16 Jan 04 21:16
>How did I feel about the end? Well, I did feel I had to say how the bug was solved. Otherwise it would be like a murder mystery that ends with, "And we never found out who did it."
Ellen Ullman (ullman) Fri 16 Jan 04 21:18
>the way people seem divided against each other Yes, I did mean the wind-up toy to be menancing. The scene ends with Ethan and Harry staring at it as it paws at the air. I have to say that my experiences in startup companies were full of pressure, the sort of pressures for success and wealth that, to me, felt like menace.
the invetned stiff is dumb (bbraasch) Sun 18 Jan 04 11:25
years ago, a short time after I had been promoted from programmer to project leader, I was griping to a friend about all the interpersonal stuff that I had to deal with. "Ahhh, the human element" was his reply. It only gets worse when there's the sense that there's a pile of money to be made. Take me back to the code.
Ellen Ullman (ullman) Sun 18 Jan 04 11:59
I agree. The code becomes a way to dodge the messy, unfriendly relationships. But of course this only exacerbates the problem. There is this idea that programming is a logical process, and that the human interaction is somehow a distraction from the orderliness of the code. But there is nothing more political than a software development project. There are product managers, investors, potential clients, existing clients, technical people, salespeople all pulling for their own approaches. The process is full of concessions to "special interest groups." In contrast, the passage of a law in Congress looks positively mathematical.
the invetned stiff is dumb (bbraasch) Sun 18 Jan 04 12:14
I used to give a speech on the five jobs of the project manager. The idea was to show that the only way to keep the job was to focus on keeping the project funded by the sponsor and delegate everything else, then work on the biggest messes until you get it right. It is kind of amazing that any software actually works if it was designed and written by committee.
from FIN HUNT (tnf) Sun 18 Jan 04 13:25
Fin Hunt writes: It sounds like a terrific book. I'm going to Barnes And Noble to check it out. There was a book that came out a few years ago, I forget the exact title, "Inside Apple" or something, that talked about Apple's rise and fall and resurrection. It was great. Fascinating to read about all the things that might have been. For each piece of software that comes out, there's a lot of hardship involved.
Ellen Ullman (ullman) Sun 18 Jan 04 15:03
>It is kind of amazing that any software actually works if it was designed and written by committee. It constantly amazes me. Of course, it doesn't work very well. Hence, The Bug.
s 205 (lauram) Mon 19 Jan 04 13:05
Artificial life is another theme in the book, this hobby that Ethan works on when life itself gets to be more than he can take. Did you ever dabble in it yourself, Ellen? What's the attraction?
a meat-vessel, with soul poured in (wellelp) Tue 20 Jan 04 04:36
Howdy, Ellen, I really enjoyed reading The Bug. A mystery with a logical conclusion. I never worked at start-ups, rather I was a corporate drone. One thing that kept hitting me was the emphasis on graduate studies in this book, and the appraising of people by their educational background rather than their actual work experience. Is that common in start-ups?
Ellen Ullman (ullman) Tue 20 Jan 04 09:20
No, I don't think it's common for start-ups to put much emphasis on educational backgrounds. On the contrary, I think part of the whole dot-com illusion was that everyone was supposedly a brilliant drop-out, a la Bill Gates or Larry Page (of google, who never finished his Ph.D). The Bug is fiction, and the story is particular to the characters. In this case, having to leave graduate school was a defining moment in Ethan Levin's life. He had to pick up programming as he went along, and this fed his sense of insecurity. Then he had a tester who was far better educated than he was, and so the conflict is put in place. That said, I based some of The Bug on my experience at Sybase, where the woman who set up the technical support, testing, and documentation departments (everything but original engineering) had a Ph.D. This was the mid-1980s. Unable to find people with experience, she decided she'd hire smart people who would learn, and so hired all these people with Ph.D.s in things like classics and linguistics. We had all these programmers who had BSEEs, and their testers were wildly better-educated than they were. It made for interesting relations, as you might imagine. There is an inherent antagonism between programmers and testers. A tester is someone whose whole purpose at work is to find out everything you did wrong. Add to that the difference in temperment between engineers and people who read three ancient languages, and things get interesting.
Ellen Ullman (ullman) Tue 20 Jan 04 09:29
Now to Laura's question about artificial life: When I was starting out as a programmer, in the late 1970s, early artificial intelligence research was still at a peak. It was a time of great (and naive) optimism, when computer scientists like Marvin Minsky believed that an intelligent machine could be devised within a decade or so. I poured over the literature but found myself skeptical. My books from those days, which I've kept, are full of ridiculing marginal comments like "Oh yeah?" and "You've got to be kidding!" Many years later I had occasion to get to know Chris Langton, who is one of the important figures in artificial life. Chris is known for his work at the Sante Fe Institute, where he championed the idea of intelligence as something that emerges from collections of low-level, "dumb" interactions. He created so-called self-replicating figures known as Langton's loops, which propagate themselves and evolve by following simple, local rules. Chris told me that when his loops first evolved, he sat there and cried. I never forgot that. The image of a man crying before his evolving digital creatures stayed with me, and I knew that somewhere in this story, Ethan Levin would cry in front of his creations. I didn't know the exact circumstances -- I didn't know what the emotional color would be, what exactly would be happening before and afterward -- but I knew that something like that scene would be in there.
Ari Davidow (ari) Tue 20 Jan 04 09:31
Fascinating. But given that cultural difference, how common is it for testers to leap over the wall, as it were, and get into programming?
s 205 (lauram) Tue 20 Jan 04 09:59
Well, Roberta is more or less pushed over the wall. As a result of Ethan's complaints about his work being tested by someone who does't even know how to program, she gets assigned to take a class in it. She gets sucked in pretty fast, and she gets some sense of what it's like to be Ethan, that is, buffered from a more direct experience of the world by this intellectual preoccupation that's always running in the back of his mind. Ellen, you write so effectively about the allure of this kind of work and the satisfactions it offers, but you also seem ambivalent about it. Do you still think the work demands the sort of autistic culture that tends to grow up around it, or is that a tendancy that can be overcome?
Ellen Ullman (ullman) Tue 20 Jan 04 10:38
Roberta is pushed into it, as are most testers, but only to a limited extent. I've never been a tester, but I do cringe when I remember how I felt about those who were not technically able. It took me a while to understand that software is not for the programmer but for the *user*, and that the tester represents the user's experience. As computers have advanced, and more of the processing power is being used for the UI, there are many more people involved in software development than just programmers. A whole new specialty has been created -- with titles like "Director of User Experience" -- in which nitty-gritty knowledge of code is not important but knowing how to figure out users' reactions is. These new UE specialists are, believe it or not, Ph.D.s in things like anthropology -- which describes Roberta's boss, Wallis. I do think that the profession of programming is changing. Programmers may *want* to retreat into a semi-autistic world, but so much of coding these days involves the use of pre-existing code, packages, and libraries, that it's nearly impossible to just sit by yourself and write programs. Open-source development has made programming more of a social act: your code is seen by hundreds if not thousands of other programmers, each of whom can have a very public reaction. That said, the sort of society that has been created in the open-source world is not exactly a tea party. I'll probably get a lot of flack for saying this, but the people involved don't always have the best people-skills. The interactions are very rough and tumble, tending toward a subtext of who is smarter and better and right. For example, after The Bug came out there was a discussion on slashdot, the programmer site. One guy, complaining about something he thought was wrong in the book, said something like, "I guess my twenty-five years of programming trumps her [my] twenty years." And then someone replied to *him*, saying, no, he was wrong, and "I guess my thirty years trumps your twenty-five." If I had written that interchange in the book (which I easily might have, since it seemed so usual to me), I would have been criticized for being anti-technical-- as I have been. Programmers seem to want to have books that reflect their experience, but many simply hate to see anything negative said about it. I understand that. There have been so many ridiculous things said about so-called nerds. So much of it is uninformed. But like all stereotypes, there is a grain of truth in the nerd image. I think, Laura, that there is something inherent in programming that will always attract a certain sort of person. After all, most of your working day involves interaction with a compiler, a very dumb, literal-minded thing. Anyone who is gregarious or dreamy or free-associative in their thinking -- someone with a metaphorical imagination -- simply wouldn't be able withstand the sort single-mindedness that programming requires. And I think we are stuck with this. After all, the computer was built to take care of the things we're bad at -- literal-mindedness, recalling long lists, doing repetitive calculations. We can't then expect it to be dreamy and poetic. What we can do is make it *appear* to be dreamy and poetic. But underneath it all, someone will still have to write the code that creates the illusion.
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