Gail Williams (gail) Tue 27 Jan 04 10:07
Or like a motel 6!
Ellen Ullman (ullman) Tue 27 Jan 04 16:03
Definitely more Motel 6 than zen. (Her reason for the bare walls was that anything on them represented "visual clutter.")
s 205 (lauram) Tue 27 Jan 04 17:59
I have some sympathy with that. I can't concentrate on writing if there's stuff on the table that I can see peripherally from my desk. It has to be neat or it drives me nuts! I'll be sad to see the technical stuff in your work go, Ellen, because you explain it so well and feeling like I've gained a glimmer of insight into the subject is very gratifying. We can't escape the specialization of knowledge that's needed for people to develope expertise, but it does bother me that parts of our culture are so utterly ignorant of each other. It's much worse on the humanities side of the divide, I find. You're far more likely to find literary or "culture vulture" types who assert that there's nothing worth knowing about the numerical side of human knowledge than vice versa. I'd be willing to bet that the percentage of scientists who can name 3 Shakespeare plays is much bigger than the percentage of humanities people who can list, say, two of Newton's laws of motion. I know we'll never go back to the days of the amazing 18C & 19C polymaths, scientists who wrote poetry and novelists who were naturalists, etc. But it's pathetic to revel in parochialism as I've sometimes heard people do. Computers have reshaped our world, especially conceptually, so I really appreciate getting this inkling of how they work and how the people who make them work, work.
Gerald Feeney (gerry) Tue 27 Jan 04 20:07
<scribbled by gerry Tue 27 Jan 04 20:08>
Gerry Feeney (gerry) Tue 27 Jan 04 20:08
Ellen, I don't expect to be able to read your book in the immediate future, since I'm really *booked* for the next few weeks. So, I wonder if you wouldn't mind a few questions for which I might have answers had I already read your book: 1) My recollection of Silicon Valley in the early '80s in many ways has a sort of small town feel to it. There was a lot of mingling between people in different companies. It really did seem like everybody knew everybody. Do you touch upon or reflect any of that in your book? 2) Cocaine use proliferated greatly during that period, as I recall. In my experience, over a few short years I saw it go from something relatively rare and obscure to something that became more or less commonplace. For instance, I remember one day (maybe '82 or so) going over to chat with another programmer. While we were talking, I thoughtlessly shoved a stack of program listings (remember the old "greenbar?") and a 9-track tape reel over to one side so that I could sit down on top of his desk. As I did so, he grimmaced and appeared to be in extreme anguish. It turned out that he had a bunch of lines prepared on his desk, surrounded and protected by the inner hub of the tape reel, and the program listings were on top of the the tape reel to conceal the neatly chopped lines. As he explained to me later, when no one was looking, he'd lift up the program listings and discreetly suck up a line. That was his routine. But it was everywhere, and I started noticing it more and more over time. Was it just me, or did you encounter that, too? Do you cover any of that in your book? 3) I'm not your usual sci-fi buff - far from it - but a bit over 20 years ago or so, I read _Stand on Zanzibar_ by John Brunner. It was a wild book and great fun to read; it was a futuristic novel (set in the year 2010 I think), and one of the significant developments in the plot was a very important and very large computer - I think it was called "Shalmanasser" - that went haywire and all sorts of people were working frantically to try and solve the problem. I'm curious to know if you ever read it and, if so, was it an influence on your writing?
Ellen Ullman (ullman) Wed 28 Jan 04 13:28
Well, I have to say, gerry, yours is a bit of an odd request, but. . . 1)No. The book is about a man who is extremely isolated, even from himself. 2)Yes, I mention cocaine use -- and I'm so glad someone remembers that about the time. 3)No, I haven't read it.
Ellen Ullman (ullman) Wed 28 Jan 04 13:33
>far more likely to find literary or "culture vulture" types who assert that there's nothing worth knowing about the numerical side of human knowledge than vice versa. I have been asked to review a piece for a feminist academic publication, and it's giving me the shivers. The author (I don't know if it's a man or a woman) calls programming "masculinist." I'm rather enraged by this uninformed (and incurious!) point of view.
virtual community or butter? (bumbaugh) Wed 28 Jan 04 18:34
Incurious, I agree, and vicious for that reason. And I agree with Laura that parochialism ought not to be our aim. But at the same time, i'm struck by the lack of parallelism in the illustration: that surely just being able to name three plays isn't on a par with knowing two of the three laws of classical mechanics. A big part of the whole "two cultures" stuff that Ellen's after in *The Bug* (it seems to me) is that the technical side of the divide packs so much into things so concise, so that knowing "Every body continues in its state of rest or of uniform motion in a right line unless it is compelled to change that state by forces impressed upon it" is *so* unlike being able to recall "King Lear." THough I'm hard put to say what *would be* similarly large on the humanities side of the divide. And non-humanistically trained folks would not know the law that way, anyway, but rather F=ma, I suppose.
Gail Williams (gail) Wed 28 Jan 04 18:38
For some reason I'm imagining an "Ain't I a woman" monologue by Ada Byron, Lady Lovelace.
a meat-vessel, with soul poured in (wellelp) Wed 28 Jan 04 21:24
My take on the feminism issue is that programming was one of the most unbiased areas, and that women could advance as easily as men. That made it quite unusual for its time (remember this was the heyday of the glass ceiling). I can remember many companies met their EEO quotas for women through their IT departments.
Ellen Ullman (ullman) Wed 28 Jan 04 21:53
I agree that, for me at least, programming offered an avenue that was relatively degendered. But not entirely, and only for its time. At the interview for my second significant programming job (this was in 1980), the guy who eventually hired me said -- at the interview --"Geesh, I hate to hire all these girls, but you're all so smart." So it was true, during a narrow window of time, that women could *almost* advance as easily as men. The need for people who could do the job, for the moment, outweighed other considerations. But only if we women were willing to lean sideways and let the shit fly over our shoulders. But all this changed by the mid-1980s, when the first crop of BSEEs (99% men) was spit out of the technical university system. The whole culture then changed very abruptly. What we think of as the nerd culture began right at that time--but it was really just a side-effect of the rather narrow education that all these engineers had just had. The NY Times reporter John Markoff is working on a book about the people (it was mostly men) who created what we now think of as computing. I look forward to this book, because I'm sure John will show that those pioneers were stoners and dreamers, political free-wheelers, intellectual gadflies -- the exact opposite of the straight-thinking engineers that came out of MIT and Berkeley in 1984 with whom I had to work.
Ellen Ullman (ullman) Wed 28 Jan 04 22:06
>I'm hard put to say what *would be* similarly large on the humanities side of the divide. Oh, Bruce, you do: postmodernism. Nothing could be more "technical" and forbidding (and ingrown and jargon-full) than a steady diet of papers derived from Foucault and Lacan, and all their progeny of feminist-queer-theory, etc. I remember a very smart programmer friend of mine who once came to my house. As people will do, he looked through my bookcase. Despite the fact that he was years and synapses ahead of me in computing, he was impressed that I had read (and perhaps understood?) _Discipline and Punish_. Go figure.
Authentic Frontier Gibberish (gerry) Thu 29 Jan 04 08:03
Ellen, I'm very struck by what you said in <86>. It's so true, yet I never consciously thought about it until now. When I - a USC Business School dropout - was just starting out, it was a black woman from Guyana who took me under her wing and taught me the ropes. In fact, several of my programming mentors were women. And of all of the best and brightest programmers I've known, not a single one was a computer science graduate. They were people who had majored in history, music, and other liberal arts. One was a high school dropout who started working with me in 1979, when he was just 17. Two years later he was sent to Australia to teach some engineers about programming.
Ellen Ullman (ullman) Thu 29 Jan 04 08:52
Funny isn't it? It's true that programming is highly ruled-based and precise, but the ability to do it well seems not to be teachable. It's more a talent than a skill. EE programs seem to turn out people (mostly men) who have been taught the skill but who don't have the lively frame of mind that good programming requires.
Jim Klopfenstein (klopfens) Thu 29 Jan 04 10:42
>And of all of the best and brightest programmers I've known, not a >single one was a computer science graduate. As a computer science MS, I resemble that remark :) At the large state multiversity where I got my degree, many of the best programmers came over from the School of Music (which was very good). I was an especially odd ball, technically a Comparative Literature grad student when I started taking programming courses. At least we Comp Sci grads believed we needed to learn programming as a serious discipline. Some of the EEs I knew seemed to think that because they understood circuits, they knew all they needed to know to become first-class programmers.
an impressive spasm of competence (tinymonster) Thu 29 Jan 04 10:53
Heh. I'm a BSEE (and now a programmer), but more than once it was the programming projects that saved my grade in a class!
Jim Klopfenstein (klopfens) Thu 29 Jan 04 11:22
NB that I was careful to say "some".
an impressive spasm of competence (tinymonster) Thu 29 Jan 04 12:25
Oh, and I believe you! I'm just saying I was maybe a little odd. When people express surprise that I diverted into software, I often remark that programming is as logical as I THOUGHT engineering was when I went into it. (Well, the activity, not the human politics you find in every job.) (Just had a devil of a time getting this posted; I think Engaged was down for a few minutes.)
Gerry Feeney (gerry) Thu 29 Jan 04 12:29
Well, CS curricula have come a long way since the '70s and early '80s, when it was a relatively new academic discipline. But I think that regardless of background, really good programmers are always people who are passionate - if not obsessed - with the art of it. Guys like Brian Kernighan, Dennis Ritchie, et al, never studied CS. Hell, they practically invented CS. I think the attitude commonly heard toward CS grads in the '80s was something to the tune of, "They're well suited for firmware, compiler design, or R&D at some place like HP or IBM, but they're clueless when it comes to real-life applications and users." But a lot has changed since then. BTW, I didn't mean to diss CS grads. I'm just jealous because I don't have a CS degree and I wish I did. Besides, I might be begging you all for a job one of these days. ;-)
a meat-vessel, with soul poured in (wellelp) Thu 29 Jan 04 21:37
Another CS major here. I always say I learned to "think like a programmer" rather than any particular technical skills. I know exactly what you mean by the art of programming, Gerry. A well written program is a lovely thing to behold.
from RUCHIRA DATTA (tnf) Thu 29 Jan 04 22:06
Ruchira Datta writes: Hi, Ellen. Thanks so much for the great book. I found both Roberta and Ethan very sympathetic. As both a programmer and a voracious reader (I felt so smug about knowing the significance of the Key to All Mythologies!) I saw a little of myself in both of them. Afterwards it amazed me how you had managed to make the reader identify with and feel for Ethan, when objectively speaking if we ran into him in real life we probably would dislike him. Spoiler space When Ethan gets reamed out on the phone just as he's about to hang himself, I felt like screaming "NOOOO!" Yet her reaction is perfectly understandable and we can't blame her; we might react the same way in her shoes. I think engaging our compassion is one of the highest things a book can achieve, and _The Bug_ has done an outstanding job. I was chilled by Ethan's body not being found for days, because just a few weeks before I read _The Bug_, I learned of a similar recent incident in real life--a programmer who died (naturally) in his home and wasn't found for nine days. (Also with a significant interest in AI, by the way.) Did you base that part on an actual occurrence, or did it just seem to you like something that might happen? I wonder how often it does happen?
s 205 (lauram) Fri 30 Jan 04 06:44
Actually, I think my example is sufficiently parallel. Yes, it's unrealistic to expect a humanities person to come up with ""Every body continues in its state of rest or of uniform motion in a right line unless it is compelled to change that state by forces impressed upon it," but it's not outrageous to think that knowing that one of Newton's major "discoveries" is the law of *inertia* should be something the average cultured person should know. That, after all, is a word people use metaphorically all the time. Since I'm about to have lunch with about 6 book review editors, I'll see if any of them can do it.
Ellen Ullman (ullman) Fri 30 Jan 04 09:07
>I was chilled by Ethan's body not being found for days, because just a few weeks before I read _The Bug_, I learned of a similar recent incident in real life--a programmer who died (naturally) in his home and wasn't found for nine days. (Also with a significant interest in AI, by the way.) Did you base that part on an actual occurrence, or did it justseem to you like something that might happen? I wonder how often it does happen? Something like that happened to a programmer at a place I once worked. He didn't show up for work for several days, and calls to his house went unanswered. Later we learned that he had hung himself. The story that went around the office (and which I used in The Bug as office gossip) was that he had died in an act of autoeroticism gone wrong -- a *really* bad bug, went the joke. What stayed with me about the incident (beyond the loss of life and the callousness with with his co-workers received the news) was the way he had had not been found for days. I was astonished by lack the disconnectedness in this programmer's life, the lack of friends or family connections, the fact that it would have to be his manager who would miss him, but only after he had disappeared for nearly a week.
Ellen Ullman (ullman) Fri 30 Jan 04 09:09
A body in motion tends to stay in motion; a body at rest tends to stay at rest. Everyone surely knows that!
Cynthia Dyer-Bennet (cdb) Fri 30 Jan 04 12:56
groan... And on that note, I wanted to thank Ellen and Laura for joining us in Inkwell for the past couple weeks. This has been a fascinating discussion, indeed. We appreciate having you here, and though we've launched another interview, we wanted to assure you that you're welcome to continue as long as you wish. This topic won't be frozen and we'd be delighted if you stick around. Thank you!
Members: Enter the conference to participate