Genre and its red-headed step-children

I cannot recommend The Mumpsimus strongly enough. Back there he’s all about writing about genre and its related problems (opportunities). This dovetails nicely with that Lethem link from yesterday and also a conversation that i and I are having over at the squublog, where he also linked to some (loosely) genre-related otherwritings. It’s funny how these serendipitous things turn up.

(Squuby and I seem to have this strange habit of reading the same books at around the same time. We don’t coordinate; it seems to be a random thing. And some of the books are quite obscure… It’s a funny thing. I think THE CURIOUS INCIDENT OF THE DOG IN THE NIGHTTIME makes number 5.)

The Bug

I’ve always had a thing for computers. Ever since that morning in–what was it? 2nd grade?–that my class trooped down to the library to get a look at the (probably) brand-spanking new Apple IIes. (I remember staring at the poster of the (re)boot and thinking, “Huh?” I was a very literal-minded child.) Hey, I mean, it was like television–which I loved, except for M*A*S*H, which I hated–only you could make it show you anything you wanted! My fate was sealed. I’ve been a computer-junky ever since. (Maybe this is why I don’t really watch television anymore? The computer got pretty enough to replace it?)

The funny thing is, though, in spite of my technophilia, I’ve never really been that interested in the programming end of things. Oh, I’ve tried. There was a time when I tinkered around on my trusty Commodore 64, trying my best to write a decent text adventure game. I took a computer programming class in high school, which was a joke, because it was filled with “computer geeks”, who already had it down pat, and complete computer illiterates. There wasn’t really a place for a dilletante like myself. I mean, to give you an idea, for our final we watched a Moody Blues documentary.

In college, I tried again, with a C++ class for one of my math requirements. Which is about the grade that I got in the class. Again, it was a class filled with kids who already got it, who had been doing C++ for years, probably. I did my best, but there was a conceptual chasm that I just couldn’t bridge. I just didn’t get it, after a certain point. I remember having a conversation with the prof about computerized random number generators. It was driving me crazy trying to figure out why my random number generator program kept generating the EXACT SAME NUMBER every single time. When he explained, with some exasperation, that computers didn’t actually generate random numbers, but only simulated it, I didn’t know what to say. I still didn’t really understand what he was talking about.

So, last month, when I read The Bug by Ellen Ullman, certain things clicked into place. It helped me to think about programming in a way that I hadn’t quite thought of before. It helps that one of the narrators, Roberta, is an English major turned (reluctant) programmer.

The story is set in the early 1980s. A software company is designing a graphical interface for their spreadsheet software. Berta, who works a s a tester, encounters a bug in the software that crashes everything, but that no one can reliably replicated. Ethan is the programmer whose life crumbles around him as he fails to find the cause of this computer glitch. Berta is instructed to learn C, in order to assist in finding the bug, and, in spite of herself, becomes mesmerized by the structure and beauty of computer code. It’s a stunning piece of writing.

The other part of the story describes Ethan’s slow death spiral into oblivion. A cautionary tale about the dangers of obsession and monomania.

In short, well worth it.

The book even got written up on Slashdot!

It’s funny. The interviews with Ellen Ullman tend to focus almost exclusively on her as computer programmer, with very little focus on the book itself, as you can see here and here.


computer metaphors…

This caught my eye over at Bruce Sterling’s weblog–Beyond the Beyond:

“The latest craze in the virus-worm-spam war has seen computer worms crawling inside of other computer worms – like watching maggots crawl on top of each other as they make their way through a tender piece of meat.”

Computers. Which reminds me, there’s a book I’ve been meaning to write about… I’ll get to that shortly.

For some reason, this whole computer metaphor made me wonder how things would’ve needed to be different in this world in order for a certain song to exist…

“Living in a metaphorical world/And I am a metaphorical girl”

Okay, so the rhythm doesn’t work, but it’s an interesting idea nonetheless.