Tuesday, July 01, 2008

"The Soul of a New Machine"

I'm re-reading Tracy Kidder's "The Soul of a New Machine." The first time I read it I was most interested in the technical aspects, but this time I'm concentrating more on Kidder's ability to describe his subject with beautiful prose, which is strange considering it's a book about a bunch of engineers designing a computer.

The following paragraphs, I think, are Kidder's crowning achievements and indicative of the book as a whole. Like much of his best writing, you don't need to understand what's going on in order to get to the heart of the issue: a human being, swimming in the unnatural world of equations and electronics, trying to grasp what he's seeing...and working under an impossible amount of stress. All that said, this scene is still and quiet, as most awful situations really are:
Something has happened. The straight white line that was running across the little blue screen has rearranged itself into a jagged shape, like a diagram of two teeth on one side of a zipper. Rosen is staring at the picture, his nails raised to his mouth. Slowly, still staring, he rotates his hand and takes most of his knuckles in his teeth. For a long moment, he holds this position, frozen like the image on the screen.

It might be a painting of a nightmare by Goya. Your eye is drawn from the young man's face and the hand resting in his teeth, to the jagged line on the screen, which is in fact a picture of an electronic event that took place, in infinitesimal time, just a moment ago. Though it is a common sort of picture, often seen in the lab, all of a sudden it has become dreadful. But who can say why?
Kidder earned his Pulitzer Prize.

15 comments:

jj said...

good grief, muffy! You are drinking kool aid! I would have sworn I had read what I am linking to in in "Roughing it", but turns out I actually have read the equally excellent "Life on the Mississippi" too

Here:

http://etext.virginia.edu/toc/modeng/public/TwaLife.html

:-)

Muffy St. Bernard said...

Thank you for the link, JJ, but what's this about Kool Aid?

jj said...

I am getting something totally different on my 2nd reading of "Life on the Mississippi",(started after I linked) but on my FIRST reading one of the main takeaways was that every generation thinks it invented "hardwork" and "self-sacrifice" and "jobs greater than oneself". :-)

Muffy St. Bernard said...

I'll have to read it when I get the chance...

...but surely you're not accusing Kidder or myself of thinking that "Soul of a New Machine" invented those things? :)

I've since found out that the book is lauded by business management professors as an example of how to (or how not to) motivate people to innovate and do "jobs greater than oneself," but I'd say that isn't the focus of the book...

...it's about, well, the soul of a new machine. The final product, being such an insanely complex object, that its components seem invested with the soul of its creators. Plus the desire of an engineer to do interesting, meaningful work and -- most importantly -- see that work "get out the door" in the form of a new computer. And the acknoledgement that the only way they can create ANOTHER computer is to finish THIS one.

Most importantly, though, it's Kidder's style that makes the book work, over and above the themes.

jj said...

Well, I tend to stay very very far away from techno-illiterate writers hyping up technologists as some kind of heroes precisely because they have NO idea what is exactly happening. :) BTW. Yeah! I taught Muffy a useful phrase! Do google for "drinking the kool aid" :)

Muffy St. Bernard said...

I know the phrase, I just didn't know how I was supposedly drinking it. :)

I think Kidder's technical illiteracy was perfect; he largely shies away from the real nitty-gritty, often quoting engineers verbatim without defining their phrases, to highlight how deeply these people became immersed in their worlds.

If Kidder had written the book from a more technologically knowledgeable position, chances are it would be hopelessly out-of-date now (except for those who tried to build fridge-size minicomputers in their youth).

Have you read the book? I didn't get a sense of heroism. I DID get a sense of stubbornness, tenacity, frustration, confusion, enthusiasm, and -- ultimately -- disappointment.

Kidder makes sure that the head honchos in the book are treated ambiguously, not heroically; did they manage to pull off this feat because they knew extraordinary things about human psychology, or did they just sit back and let a bunch of adolescents do the work?

jj said...

To be fair, I haven't read it. But I can see reviews from lots of kool-aid drinkers in amazon. :)

jj said...

> not heroically; did they manage to pull off this feat because they knew extraordinary things about human psychology,

That is the sum total of my problem with the book. People like Steve Jobs - who really is not technically proficient "learn" from this book. :)

jj said...

And if you google for "soul of the new machine", on the 3rd page, a familiar name. Do you guys keep in touch? :)

Muffy St. Bernard said...

To be fair, one of the biggest jobs that a manager has is to wrangle talent, not to know the nuts and bolts of what's going on.

That said, the managers in "Soul" were VERY technically proficient, and I see nothing wrong with a non-technical observer writing about his observations. That's what journalism usually is: people with a basic gloss of the situation going in and writing about what they see, and the rest of us being able to relate to the observations because we aren't technical either.

Like I said, if "Soul" was REALLY about the process of writing microcode or wrapping a circuit board, it would be a very dull book!

Muffy St. Bernard said...

I've looked at page 3 of my copy and I only see a reference to Tom West, the manager in charge of the Eagle project.

And if George Bush himself said he liked the book, it would not dim my enjoyment of it. I try to judge a book outside of what I read in amazon reviews (but then I don't read blurbs either).

This, I think, is a perfect example of when NOT knowing a book's hype is a GOOD thing. You have read reviews that annoy you and now you'll never read the book itself. That alone isn't a problem -- there's lots of good books out there, and maybe you wouldn't like it anyway -- but you'll go so far as to accuse those who DO like it of "drinking Kool Aid." :)

Muffy St. Bernard said...

Oh, I SEE, you mean "the third page of the google search."

Sadly, google searches are constantly changing and -- I think -- depend on which part of the world you're searching from. I don't see anything that rings a bell on my page 3...

jj said...

Fair enough. As George Bush and Osama Bin Laden continue to demonstrate, we are all too capable of drinking kool aid. :)

soul of the machine ghost. That should do it. He is maintaining a blog with fascinatingly subtitled video captures too. :)

Muffy St. Bernard said...

Ahhh, David Chute! I wonder what he's up to? He doesn't seem to be updating his site...

jj said...

check site. Follow blog. Behold this:

http://davidchute.journalspace.com/?entryid=834

:)