Archive for September, 2022

I discovered Ellen Ullman’sClose to the Machine : Technophilia and its Discontents‘ a few years back. It was about how Silicon Valley looked like to a person who worked at the ground level. This was probably one of the first books to describe this. I finally got around to reading it.

In the book, Ellen Ullman describes her experiences working as a programmer in Silicon Valley. Most of the book is set in the middle and late 1990s at the dawn of the Internet era. But Ullman also goes back in time and describes her experiences in the ’80s and the ’70s, and we get a ringside view of how technology and how computer culture evolved.

If you have worked in the tech industry in any capacity, but particularly as a computer programmer (I don’t know exactly what this is called these days. From ‘computer programmer’ it became ‘software engineer’, and it used to be called derisively as ‘coder’ by non-technical people in the tech industry. These days it is probably called ‘App developer’, but I’m not sure.), you’ll be able to relate to most of the things described in the book. I could. Some parts of the book made me smile, and nod in acknowledgement, while others triggered some unpleasant memories.

My favourite chapter in the book was called ‘New, Old, and Middle Age’. It is about how software technology keeps changing rapidly and how it is hard to keep up, and at some point a person gives up. It happens to everyone, and it happened to me. I still remember the heady early days, when I sat with two of my teammates while we analyzed and debugged a program and I identified the main source of a particular nasty problem and my teammates looked at me with admiration. Years later, one of my teammates taught me a new technology and asked me to hold the fort while he was away for a day, and when a customer came up with a simple request, I couldn’t handle that. That simple thing was beyond me. I knew that day that my programming days were over, and that the technology had changed to a point where I couldn’t keep up with it, and I had become obsolete as a programmer. When I read a whole chapter about it in the book, it made me smile.

I went into the tech industry because I loved programming, and I thought I’ll be on a high all the time, because I’ll be working on computer programs all the time. But reality didn’t turn out that way. There were meetings and interruptions and phone calls and this and that, and in addition to that one had to deal with the contempt that non-technical employees had for programmers, and soon, at some point, all the romance went out of the work, and I pottered around like a zombie and tried to get through the day. Ellen Ullman talks about all this in the book when she describes how when a new project starts, everyone is enthusiastic and positive, but before long things go awry, and it all goes to hell after that.

There are many other interesting things, fascinating things that Ellen Ullman talks about in the book. I’ll let you read the book yourself and experience its pleasures.

I loved Ellen Ullman’s book. As one of the first books on this theme, it is pioneering and fascinating. I wish I had read it when I was younger.

I’ll leave you with two of my favourite excerpts from the book. Hope you like them.

First Excerpt

“I once worked on a mainframe computer system where the fan-folded listing of my COBOL program stood as high as a person. My program was sixteen years old when I inherited it. According to the library logs, ninety-six programmers had worked on it before I had. I spent a year wandering its subroutines and service modules, but there were still mysterious places I did not dare touch. There were bugs on this system no one had been able to fix for ten years. There were sections where adding a single line of code created odd and puzzling outcomes programmers call “side effects”: bugs that come not directly from the added code but from some later, known permutation further down in the process. My program was near the end of its “life cycle.” It was close to death.

Yet the system could not be thrown away. By the time a computer system becomes old, no one completely understands it. A system made out of old junky technology becomes, paradoxically, precious. It is kept running but as if in a velvet box : open it carefully, just look, don’t touch.

The preciousness of an old system is axiomatic. The longer the system has been running, the greater the number of programmers who have worked on it, the less any one person understands it. As years pass and untold numbers of programmers and analysts come and go, the system takes on a life of its own. It runs. That is its claim to existence : it does useful work. However badly, however buggy, however obsolete – it runs. And no one individual completely understands how. Its very functioning demands we stop treating it as some mechanism we’ve created like, say, a toaster, and start to recognize it as a being with a life of its own. We have little choice anyway : we no longer control it. We have two choices: respect it or kill it.

Old systems have a name. They are called “legacy systems.” In the regular world, “legacy” has an aura of beneficence, Parents leave a child a legacy : fortunate child. A brother gets into a fraternity because of his older brother’s earlier membership : a legacy admission. A gift. An enrichment. The patina of age, but good age-venerability, the passing on from generation to generation. A gift of time.

In computing, however, “legacy” is a curse. A legacy system is a lingering piece of old junk that no one has yet figured out how to throw away. It’s something to be lived with and suffered. The system is unmodifiable, full of bugs, no longer understood. We say it’s “brain dead.” Yet it lives. Yet it runs. Drain on our time and money. Vampire of our happiness. Legacy.”

Second Excerpt

“I’ve managed to stay in a perpetual state of learning only by maintaining what I think of as a posture of ignorant humility. This humility is as mandatory as arrogance. Knowing an IBM mainframe – knowing it as you would a person, with all its good qualities and deficiencies, knowledge gained in years of slow anxious probing – is no use at all when you sit down for the first time in front of a UNIX machine. It is sobering to be a senior programmer and not know how to log on.

There is only one way to deal with this humiliation : bow your head, let go of the idea that you know anything, and ask politely of this new machine, “How do you wish to be operated?” If you accept your ignorance, if you really admit to yourself that everything you know is now useless, the new machine will be good to you and tell here is how to operate me.

Once it tells you, your single days are over. You are involved again. Now you can be arrogant again. Now you must be arrogant : you must believe you can come to know this new place as well as the old – no, better. You must now dedicate yourself to that deep slow probing, that patience and frustration, the anxious intimacy of a new technical relationship. You must give yourself over wholly to this : you must believe this is your last lover.”

Have you read ‘Close to the Machine : Technophilia and its Discontents‘? What do you think about it?

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Years back Caroline from ‘Beauty is a Sleeping Cat’ introduced many of us to the great Marlen Haushofer’s masterpiece ‘The Wall. I read it after discovering it, and at that time, I was only the second person that I knew who had read it. I was amazed that it was literally unknown, because as soon as I read it, it became my all-time favourite book. Since then I’ve recommended ‘The Wall’ to many friends, some of whom read it but responded to it in a lukewarm way, while most others just nodded politely and ignored my recommendation. Recently there was an essay published in ‘The Atlantic’ by Naomi Huffman about ‘The Wall’, and now James Wood has written an essay in The New Yorker about it. For some reason, it appears that writers and literary critics have suddenly discovered ‘The Wall’ and its fame seems to be growing by the day. It is not clear why, because even a couple of years back, Marlen Haushofer was totally ignored during her centenary. But I’m glad that her fame and the book’s fame is spreading and hopefully more people will read it.

I’m happy about this. But it is also a bittersweet moment for me. One of my favourite writers who was a secret among friends has now become famous. The fame is well-deserved, of course, and I’m so happy for Marlen Haushofer, but I also feel sad that the secret is out.

This is not the first time this has happened. Caroline, who has probably forgotten more about great literature than I’ll ever know, also recommended Patrick Modiano many years back. No one had heard of Patrick Modiano then, and there was no review of his books on the internet. But Caroline had read 15 books by him. Not one, not two, but 15! And we all know what happened. Modiano went on to win the Nobel Prize, and from an unknown writer he became a legend.

It didn’t end there, of course. Caroline also recommended Annie Ernaux many years back, and no one had heard of Annie Ernaux at that time. The English translation of her books were published by a small indie publisher and they were hard to find. Many years later, Annie Ernaux’ ‘The Years’ got shortlisted for the MAN International Prize, and suddenly everyone was reading and raving about Ernaux.

So, if you want to discover an unknown writer, who is going to get famous in ten years time and maybe win the Nobel Prize, you know whom to talk to – the one and only Caroline, reader extraordinaire, mom of two adorable black cats, Max and Isis (named after the Egyptian goddess), and whose book collection rivals Umberto Eco’s.

I wrote a long review of Marlen Haushofer’s book years back when I first read it. But no one will want to read that. Other friends wrote beautiful posts about the book. You can find Marina’s (from ‘Finding Time to Write’) post here, and Claire’s (from ‘Word by Word’) post here. Hope you’ll also read James Wood’s essay and Naomi Huffman’s essay and hope these posts and essays will inspire you to pick the book and read it, and experience its beauty. Happy reading!

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I’ve wanted to read Chanda Prescod-Weinstein’sThe Disordered Cosmos : A Journey into Dark Matter, Spacetime and Dreams Deferred‘, ever since it came out. So I was excited to finally read it.

The book is divided into four parts. The first part, which is around one-third of the book is about physics. In this part, Chanda talks about particle physics, relativity, spacetime, dark matter, quantum physics and other related things. One of the things that I loved about this part is that Chanda highlights many women physicists and astronomers. I was very happy to see one of my favourites, Vera Rubin, mentioned in the book. Chanda also mentions Lee Smolin and I was happy when I read that because Lee Smolin wrote one of the great, controversial, and most beautiful books about physics called ‘The Trouble with Physics‘.

In the next three parts of the book, Chanda describes her experiences as a physicist from different perspectives, and the issues in the field of physics and in science. For example, some of the things that she talks about are how women scientists are discriminated against, how it is doubly hard if you are a black woman, how patriarchy still controls science, how she got raped by a senior scientist and how many victims keep quiet because of the repercussions that might arise, what it means to be a black feminist working in physics research, how the land of indigenous communities have been appropriated in the name of science and how scientists have stood against indigenous communities. On the way she takes potshots at politicians and she is an equal opportunity person because she takes potshots at people on both sides of the divide. This part of the book reads like a collection of essays on related topics, and it is thought-provoking and insightful and very relevant today.

Towards the end of the book, there is a playlist and a list of recommended books. I loved them both.

The natural question that might arise is this – how easy is the science part? Can it be understood by a normal person? My answer is this. This part of the book reads like a conversation. Imagine that you are meeting your big sister, who is a scientist, after a long time. You sit down and talk to her. She tells you about work, about science, about the politics in her workplace, about the good and bad things that happened, about the new things she discovered. Sometimes, she explains things in detail. Sometimes she just mentions them or skims over them. Sometimes you understand the whole thing. Sometimes you understand only some things. But the whole conversation is pleasurable and you love it. Well, the first part of the book is this conversation. It explains some things but it won’t explain everything. Sometimes things will go over your head. But it is very pleasurable to read.

If you want to read a book which describes the basics of all that Chanda talks about, I can recommend two. One of them is ‘A Short History of Nearly Everything‘ by Bill Bryson. It covers other sciences too in addition to physics. This is the best book on science for the general reader that I’ve read. The second book is ‘The Universe in your Hand‘ by Christophe Galfard. This is the best book on physics that I’ve ever read. Galfard has explained things in a way that every reader would understand. Galfard was Stephen Hawking’s student, and though Stephen Hawking’s book ‘A Brief History of Time’ is more famous, Galfard’s book is much better in terms of ease of understanding and knocks the ball out of the park. This is one case, where the student outshone the master.

Chanda’s prose is sharp and irreverent, and filled with humour, mostly of the dark kind. Her sharp prose and humorous sentences sometimes made me laugh and sometimes made me think. For example, these sentences –

“These rules seem abstract, but they are the basis for how intellectuals on the Asian peninsula called Europe eventually came to think about space”

“During my first two years as an MLK Fellow at MIT, I was the only Black woman who worked for the physics department in Building 37 who wasn’t a member of the janitorial staff.”

“White men who weren’t raped and don’t have to deal with racism have been more productive than me for the last three days.”

“The sun has about five billion years left before it destroys Earth, but it’s hard to imagine that our species, which has only been around for a couple million years, will last that long.”

Chanda talks about her mother many times and the sacrifices her mother made so that Chanda could get a good education and accomplish what she did, things that Chanda didn’t know when she was young, because her mother made these sacrifices quietly. One of my favourite passages about her mother was this one. It melted by heart and made me cry. Mothers are amazing. What will we do without them?

“I once asked my mother in a moment of doubt what the point of my work was, and she said that people need to know that there is a universe beyond the terrible things that happen to us. The stars, the Standard Model, the way spacetime bends—this way of seeing the world is one that can be inspiring.”

There is a note to the reader at the end of the book in which Chanda says this. I found it very inspiring.

“Science is not about what we know. Science is about what we don’t know. A scientist’s job is to live at the boundary of what is known and unknown and try to push that boundary forward. That requires being confused—and being comfortable with not knowing the answers because we are confident that we’ve got a good toolkit. Early drafts of this book emphasized this in places, but I was afraid these notes would disrupt the reader’s focus on what I admit is a lot of new and weird information about how the universe supposedly works. The key thing is that if you’re feeling confused but intrigued and wanting to learn more, you’re having a very “scientist” experience.”

Here is the part of the book in which Chanda talks about the great Vera Rubin. It is long, but I couldn’t resist sharing it, because I want everyone to read it.

“Kelvin, Poincaré, and Zwicky are all historicized as genius giants of their time, and mysteriously Vera Rubin generally hasn’t been. In Rubin’s lifetime, men younger than her won Nobel Prizes for finding evidence of phenomena that were similarly significant to finally proving the existence of something behaving like an invisible matter (the 2011 prize for dark energy)…

As a graduate student who was struggling with self-confidence and her place in the theoretical physics community, I once spent a day with Dr. Rubin. When I met her, almost the first thing she did was ask me how I thought the dark matter problem could be solved. No one had ever asked my opinion about a major problem in physics before, not in grad school, and definitely not in college. Physicists are rarely interested in the opinions of undergraduates, who are often not deemed advanced enough to make a useful contribution to the conversation. In research, the convention is that one hands an undergraduate a problem to work on and hopes they will be creative in their efforts to apply known techniques to tiny fractions of difficult problems.

In some sense, I understand this. And yet some of the most interesting research I have done as a scientist was a collaboration with undergraduates who dug in and went beyond their coursework, asking questions and finding interesting threads in the work. Importantly, physics is about precisely that, which means that we should probably be asking our undergraduates big-picture questions, not for the sake of getting solutions out of them, but to encourage them to take ownership over those questions. But what if you never give yourself permission to think about a problem? This is what happened initially between me and dark matter. I understood it as a problem for observational astrophysics, not particle theory, and as a result, I wasn’t particularly interested in it for myself. I thought it was an important problem, but not my problem. Vera Rubin changed that impression, simply by asking me the question.

What Dr. Rubin did was probably more anti-establishment than it already seems. Not only did she ask a student what she thought about how to solve one of the biggest problems in physics, she also asked me, a brown-skinned woman. I suspect that along the way some undergraduates do get asked for their opinions. I watched as a few of my white, mostly male classmates were feted as next-generation physics greats. It became clear to me early on that the faculty had decided that I was not going to be in that particular group. Why ask someone who would never amount to anything as a scientist what she thought about science? Dr. Rubin challenged how I was treated in physics by treating me as if I was a person who could solve a major problem in physics. At the time I wasn’t working on dark matter and didn’t have a good answer for her. It was another five years before I ended up in dark matter’s intellectual orbit, and even at that point, I had no intention of becoming a person who works on dark matter. A colleague suggested we try to make sense of a proposed theory about how axion Bose-Einstein condensation works. As a result of our efforts, we produced an interesting result and suddenly I found myself, Dr. Rubin’s encouragement at my back, thinking that I too could be one of the people hot on the trail of dark matter.”

I enjoyed reading ‘The Disordered Cosmos’. It was powerful, insightful and made me think a lot. It is an unusual physics book, because it doesn’t just stop with physics, but talks about people and the environment in which they work in. Chanda says towards the end of the book that she didn’t want to write a detached book about science, but she wanted to write a book which showed things as they were and how science was practised. The result is, of course, glorious.

Have you read ‘The Disordered Cosmos‘? What do you think about it?

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