Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘Programmers at Work

How Bill Gates invented the Internet

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Bill Gates

Note: My daughter is recovering from a stomach bug, so I’m taking the morning off. In the meantime, please enjoy this post, one of my favorites, which was originally published on April 1, 2013.

Over the last few days, I’ve been greedily reading the interviews in Programmers at Work by Susan Lammers, a seductive little volume that I recently picked up at my local thrift store after keeping an eye peeled for it for a long time. I’ve always been intrigued by the parallels between coding and other forms of creativity, and this particular book, which was published in 1989, is also fascinating for the glimpses it provides into how the future of computing once looked. Here, for instance, are a few select quotes from Bill Gates, in an interview conducted almost a quarter of a century ago:

We hope with the Internet you’ll be able to look at a map of the United States, point somewhere, click, zoom in and say “Hey, what hotels are around here?” And the program will tell you.

We really believe we’re going to have the Internet in every car and in every house. And when you go to a new area of the country, you’re going to pan around and have it show you routes, and have it tell you about points of interest.

It’s pretty impressive, and no matter what you think of Gates as a person or businessman, there’s no doubt he clearly saw the shape of things to come. Here are a few more excerpts from the same interview:

The Internet is the technology we’re going to use to get personal computers into the home.

Some Internet applications sound like a fantasy. But how often is a new media invented? Almost never.

For anything that’s reference oriented, where you don’t just want to turn pages, but want to look up the information and manipulate it and see it in different ways, this electronic form is just far, far superior to most other forms.

The mix of skills required to do the world’s best Internet content is pretty intimidating, because it’s video, it’s audio, it’s programming, and it’s interactive. It’s hard, just like any other new media.

Bill Gates

And here’s the punchline: Gates isn’t talking about the Internet at all. For all of the quotes above, I’ve inserted the word “Internet” wherever Gates says “CD-ROM.” (I’ve also made a few other subtle edits. For instance, what Gates originally said was: “We really believe we’re going to have CD-ROM machines in every car and every house. And when you go to a new area of the country, you’re going to stick that little disk in there and pan around…”) Of course, CD-ROM turned out to be one of the strangest byways in the history of technology, a format that looked like it might become a permanent art form for about five years, only to end up all but forgotten. And Gates wasn’t alone in misreading the signs. The fact that we interact with most of our content online is a fact that few visionaries of any kind could have predicted two decades ago, and it’s dated a lot of otherwise insightful science fiction and futurist speculation. Infinite Jest, for instance, is hugely perceptive about how we deal with entertainment and the media—except for the fact that all of the characters are still watching cartridges on television, with the latest titles delivered by mail.

But I’d prefer to focus on the details that Gates got right. He was wrong about the medium, but in terms of how users would interact with information and how it would alter every aspect of our lives, he was remarkably prescient. And there’s a lesson here for all of us. It’s impossible to predict how people are going to read and experience stories over the next few decades, and it’s likely that such novelties as digital books—or at least the devices we use to read them—are going to seem laughably dated in retrospect. But it’s safe to say that great content will remain essential, no matter what its delivery device might be. That’s true of novels, of movies, and of any other form of information or entertainment. As a writer, I’m working in a landscape that seems, on the surface, to be changing rapidly, as publishing companies consolidate, bookstore chains close, and physical books themselves seem increasingly endangered. But all any of us can do is continue to refine the skills that have managed to survive every change in media, even if the shape they take is something that no one, not even Bill Gates, can foresee.

Written by nevalalee

March 4, 2015 at 9:54 am

Scrivener and the perils of efficiency

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Scrivener

Recently, I’ve become intrigued by the possibilities of a little program called Scrivener. It’s a word processer expressly designed for writers, and I’ve been hearing more and more about it on writing forums: it sometimes seems as if every aspiring novelist or screenwriter has a copy, and most of the reviews are raves. Along with such alluring toys as a virtual corkboard, an integrated outlining system, automatic backups, and a character name generator, it offers what looks like a useful way of organizing notes and research. Instead of keeping your materials in a bunch of widely scattered files, as I tend to do, Scrivener allows you to access them more easily by storing them in a virtual, searchable binder. It also lends itself to nonlinear approaches: instead of starting at the beginning and working your way through to the end, you can attack scenes individually and easily move them from place to place. To all appearances, it’s a thoughtful, intelligently conceived piece of software, and at the moment, it’s on sale at Amazon for only $40.

Yet I’m slightly hesitant. This isn’t because I doubt that Scrivener would save me a lot of time: in fact, I’m pretty sure that it would make my process considerably more efficient. At the moment, for instance, I’m working on an idea for a new short story, and I’m finding it challenging to keep all the pieces straight. I have a hardbound notebook in which I record my initial thoughts, which I jot down as they occur to me. Once I have a sense of the plot and subject matter, I’ll start to do some research, both online and in print. Usually this means creating text files where I can type notes as I read, but for a longer article, I’ll often want to mark it up on paper. Yesterday, for example, I copied and pasted a number of useful blog posts into Word, printed it out, and read it with pen in hand—and today I plan to retranscribe most of these notes back into a text file, where they’ll be more readily available. Using a program like Scrivener would save me at least one step, probably two, and allow me to do all of this considerably faster.

Scene cards on the author's desk

But here’s the thing: I need the process to be slightly inefficient, because it’s in those moments of downtime, when I’m transcribing notes or doing basic housekeeping to make sure that everything I need is in one place, that the story starts to come together. The most beautiful description I’ve seen of this phenomenon comes from Charles Koppelman’s Behind the Seen, as he describes the editor Walter Murch at work on an old flatbed editing machine:

The few moments [Murch] had to spend waiting for a reel to rewind injected a blank space into the process during which he could simply let his mind wander into subconscious areas. With random-access, computer-based editing, a mouse click instantly takes the editor right to a desired frame; there is no waiting, no downtime—and fewer happy accidents.

I also suspect that Murch was the “sly and crafty guy”—identified only as “Francis Ford Coppola’s mixer”—quoted in an interview with Michael Hawley, one of the developers of SoundDroid, in Programmers at Work:

Don’t forget that five minutes of rewind time is never dead time. If you are a good mixer you are always planning out the gestures and effects you’re going to be making, you’re mentally going through the process to help put down a coherent five minutes of performance. With your machine, you have lost that thinking time.

In other words, a program like Scrivener bears an analogous relationship to more conventional forms of word processing—including the humble typewriter and pen—as Final Cut Pro does to traditional editing machines. And as useful as the new software can be, there’s always a price. That doesn’t mean that we should avoid all such changes: Murch, after all, eventually switched to computer-based editing, and I have a feeling that I’m going to start using Scrivener more seriously one of these days. But we always need to remain conscious of the potential cost, building elements of silence, consolidation, and randomness into our own routine to preserve what might otherwise be lost. If we don’t, I suspect that we’ll give up more than we gain, and if this turns out to be the cost of working more efficiently, I can only reply, to quote another famous scrivener: “I would prefer not to.”

Written by nevalalee

May 30, 2013 at 8:18 am

How Bill Gates invented the Internet

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Bill Gates

Over the last few days, I’ve been greedily reading the interviews in Programmers at Work by Susan Lammers, a wonderful volume that I picked up last week at my neighborhood thrift store after keeping an eye out for it for a long time. I’ve always been intrigued by the parallels between coding and other forms of creativity, but the book, which was published in 1989, is also fascinating for the glimpses it provides into how the future of computing once looked. Here, for instance, are a few quotes from Bill Gates, in an interview conducted almost a quarter of a century ago:

We hope with the Internet you’ll be able to look at a map of the United States, point somewhere, click, zoom in and say “Hey, what hotels are around here?” And the program will tell you.

We really believe we’re going to have the Internet in every car and in every house. And when you go to a new area of the country, you’re going to pan around and have it show you routes, and have it tell you about points of interest.

It’s pretty impressive, and no matter what you think of Gates as a person or businessman, there’s no doubt he clearly saw the shape of things to come. Here are a few more excerpts from the same interview:

The Internet is the technology we’re going to use to get personal computers into the home.

Some Internet applications sound like a fantasy. But how often is a new media invented? Almost never.

For anything that’s reference oriented, where you don’t just want to turn pages, but want to look up the information and manipulate it and see it in different ways, this electronic form is just far, far superior to most other forms.

The mix of skills required to do the world’s best Internet content is pretty intimidating, because it’s video, it’s audio, it’s programming, and it’s interactive. It’s hard, just like any other new media.

Bill Gates

And here’s the punchline: Gates isn’t talking about the Internet at all. For all of the quotes above, I’ve inserted the word “Internet” wherever Gates says “CD-ROM.” (I’ve also made a few other subtle edits. For instance, what Gates originally said was: “We really believe we’re going to have CD-ROM machines in every car and every house. And when you go to a new area of the country, you’re going to stick that little disk in there and pan around…”) Of course, CD-ROM turned out to be one of the strangest byways in the history of technology, a format that looked like it might become a permanent art form for about five years, only to be completely forgotten. And Gates wasn’t alone. The fact that we interact with most of our content online is a fact that very few visionaries of any kind could have predicted two decades ago, and it’s dated a lot of otherwise insightful science fiction and futurist speculation. Infinite Jest, for instance, is hugely perceptive about how we deal with entertainment and the media—except for the fact that all of the characters are still watching cartridges on television, with the latest titles delivered by mail.

But I’d prefer to focus on the details that Gates got right. He was wrong about the medium, but in terms of how users would interact with information, and how it would change every aspect of our lives, he was remarkably prescient. And there’s a lesson here for all of us. It’s impossible to predict how people are going to read and experience stories over the next few decades, and it’s likely that such novelties as electronic books—or at least the devices we use to read them—are going to seem laughably dated in retrospect. But it’s safe to say that great content will remain essential, no matter what its delivery device might be. That’s true of novels, of movies, and of any other form of information or entertainment. As a writer, I’m working in a landscape that seems, on the surface, to be changing rapidly, as publishing companies consolidate, bookstore chains close, and physical books themselves seem increasingly endangered. And all any of us can do is continue to refine the skills that have managed to survive every change in media, even if the shape they take is something that none of us, not even Bill Gates, can foresee.

Written by nevalalee

April 1, 2013 at 9:41 am

“It’s not one particular clever trick…”

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John Warnock

It’s not one particular clever trick…I’ve been in the business since 1963, so I’ve been writing programs for more than twenty years. With lots of experience you collect hundreds of algorithms over the years; you remember tricks you’ve learned, you remember bugs you’ve had, and blind alleys you’ve gone down. You remember all the things you’ve done wrong and all the things that have worked out well. It’s a matter of picking and choosing from that smorgasbord to make a good menu, so to speak, to do a given task. You can have a great dish here and a great dish there, but together they may taste like dog food. Putting a meal together in a very delicate and sophisticated way is what makes a good cook. Putting the pieces of a program together in the same way is what makes a good computer programmer.

John Warnock, in Programmers at Work

Written by nevalalee

March 30, 2013 at 9:50 am

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