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Summer Reading: A Book About Me

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Peter Vogel        

I read a lot, and I try to read a wide variety of material. While working with Wayne Wallace to put together the article “The Access Developer’s Bookshelf” in this month’s issue, I wanted to mention another book that I’ve been reading lately. It isn’t in the article because it didn’t really fit into the article’s mandate—it isn’t about Access or programming. It is, however, about being a programmer. In effect, with this book, I was reading about myself and it was... interesting.

The book is Close to the Machine by Ellen Ullman. I should mention that Ullman isn’t like me, nor am I a lot like her. Just to pick a few characteristics that we don’t share, I’m not female, Jewish, bisexual, living in California, or a system engineer (but we are both in our fifties). The major characteristic that we do share was enough to provide me with a positive connection: We both program computers.

There are other, more psychological differences. Reading Ullman’s book, I would say that her life seems more deeply felt than mine (I could also say “overwrought,” if I wanted to be derogatory). Close to the Machine is a memoir of three or four months in the author’s life as she finishes up one contract, moves through another, and begins a third. During this time, she also moves through a relationship with a cypherpunk who’s much younger than she is. I’ve had similar periods in my life, but I wouldn’t be able write my story with quite as much purple prose.

But I really like this book. Ullman is far more insightful than I am, and manages to describe events from my life with more understanding than I’ve ever had. In one passage, she describes how programmers— given a new problem—initially react: “The project begins in the programmer’s mind with the beauty of a crystal... Yes, I understand. Yes, it can be done. Yes, how straightforward. Oh, yes. I see.” But she goes on from there, “Then something happens... the irregularities of human thinking start to emerge. You write some code, and suddenly there are dark, unspecified areas.” I know all those systems I’ve created where 80 percent of the code handled all the exceptions while 20 percent implemented the core functionality of the algorithm.I am now and always have been a programmer. I’m not a designer (or, heaven forbid, a software engineer). When I was asked if I wanted to write a course on system development, I said that I would. But if I was going to write the course, the course’s principles would be “Aw, the heck with it, let’s code something” and “Tested!?! It compiled, didn’t it?” For someone who calls herself a system engineer, though, Ullman does enough actual coding that she perfectly captures my feelings as I wrestle with a tough application—“The goal is not whatever all the analysts first set out to do; the goal becomes the creation of the system itself... If I just sit here and code, you think, I can make something run... Talk all you want, but this thing here: It works.”

The subtitle of the book, Technophilia and its Discontents, reveals Ullman’s deeper concerns in this memoir. She wants to discuss our changing relationship with the computer and our society’s crush on electronic technology. She has a wonderful chapter on how users’ perceptions of the purpose of a system change once they start using it. A system originally intended to help users becomes a way of monitoring and controlling them. A system intended to help people becomes a tool for detecting fraud so that offenders can be caught and punished. As she puts it, thanks to our affection for technology, systems can “infect users.”

Ellen Ullman also has a newer book out called The Bug. This one is a novel, set in the mid-1980s (the publisher’s blurb refers to it as “the heroic age of programming”). The plot is about the search for a bug in a startup database company’s main product. It sounds so good, I’m taking it away with me for my summer reading (along with Jane Austen’s letters, some of George Orwell’s reporting, a Western by Loren D. Estelman, and the new Harry Potter—I try to read a lot of different things).

I hate to leave Close to the Machine at home, though, because so many parts of it spoke so clearly to me. One line, at the end of chapter of Chapter 4 (the chapters, by the way, are numbered from 0), really sums up what Ullman and I share: “I can’t believe that I get paid to do this.”


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