Dizzying but invisible depth

Here is an inspirational Google+ post from the Google employee Jean-Baptiste Queru, on the subject of technological complexity.  It goes all the way from “What happens when you go to www.google.com?“, through the layers, through communication gap between technical and non-technical people, to the point of why people talked more about Steve Job’s death rather than Dennis Ritchie’s passing, even though the impact of the last one on the technology in general is much bigger.  He even touches on the problem with the patent system a bit.

Today’s computers are so complex that they can only be designed and manufactured with slightly less complex computers. In turn the computers used for the design and manufacture are so complex that they themselves can only be designed and manufactured with slightly less complex computers. You’d have to go through many such loops to get back to a level that could possibly be re-built from scratch.

Once you start to understand how our modern devices work and how they’re created, it’s impossible to not be dizzy about the depth of everything that’s involved, and to not be in awe about the fact that they work at all, when Murphy’s law says that they simply shouldn’t possibly work.

For non-technologists, this is all a black box. That is a great success of technology: all those layers of complexity are entirely hidden and people can use them without even knowing that they exist at all. That is the reason why many people can find computers so frustrating to use: there are so many things that can possibly go wrong that some of them inevitably will, but the complexity goes so deep that it’s impossible for most users to be able to do anything about any error.

That is also why it’s so hard for technologists and non-technologists to communicate together: technologists know too much about too many layers and non-technologists know too little about too few layers to be able to establish effective direct communication. The gap is so large that it’s not even possible any more to have a single person be an intermediate between those two groups

A must read.

Fedora 16 dedicated to Dennis Ritchie

According to the release notes of Fedora 16 (work in progress), this release of the popular Linux distribution is dedicated to Dennis Ritchie, who passed away recently. I think this is an excellent idea.

During the preparation of Fedora 16, the computing world lost one of its great contributors: Dennis Ritchie. Ritchie co-invented Unix and the C language. He also co-authored “The C Programming Language”, a book that taught many programmers just at the time personal computing was exploding. Without Ritchie computing would be nothing like it is today.
A humble man, not well-known outside his field, Dennis will always be remembered by those of us who practice the craft. Thank you Dennis.

Dennis Ritchie, RIP


I’ve just learned of yet another great loss – Dennis Ritchie, who passed away a few days ago at the age of 70. It’s difficult to describe his contributions and achievements to non-technical people, but anyone with even a grain of knowledge of computer history and modern affairs can appreciate what this man have done. Here is a quote from the Wikipedia page:

Ritchie was best known as the creator of the C programming language and a key developer of the Unix operating system, and as co-author of the definitive book on C, The C Programming Language, commonly referred to as K&R (in reference to the authors Kernighan and Ritchie).
Ritchie’s invention of C and his role in the development of Unix alongside Ken Thompson has placed him as an important pioneer of modern computing. The C language is still widely used today in application and operating system development, and its influence is seen in most modern programming languages. Unix has also been influential, establishing concepts and principles that are now well-established precepts of computing.
Ritchie was elected to the National Academy of Engineering in 1988 for “development of the ‘C’ programming language and for co-development of the UNIX operating system.”

Thank you Sir for all your hard work. Rest in peace.