Goodbye World

October 17, 2011

Another sad day for the computing world – a few days back Dennis Ritchie died. Yes I know I am a bit slow off the mark. This wasn’t a mega-news story like the death of Steve Jobs, but you can find a few news articles  at the BBC, the Guardian, the Telegraph, and Tech Crunch. Of course the public at large knew almost nothing about Ritchie, but he was more important to the creation of the modern world than Jobs. He invented the C programming language and co-created Unix with Ken Thompson. These things underly the Internet, the Mac, the iPhone and Android. There is a straight line from C to Java to C# so even Microsoft is not a Unix-free zone.

I have in front of me my copy of “The C programming language” by Kernighan and Ritchie. One of the many remarkable things is that it is an inch thinner than all my other computing books. It is a paradigm of clarity.

Apparently the news was first broken by Google’s Rob Pike. Here is his very nice follow-on posting on Google Plus.

Rob Pike’s posting and the Tech Crunch article have lots of comments from distressed geeks. Somebody said inventing Unix is like inventing air. I think even folks who hanker after VMS would agree that in practice we all breathe Unix. Ny favourite comment from the Tech Crunch stream was from Mike Church in Malvern, who said :

#include <stdio.h>

int main(int argc, char** argv).

fprintf(stdout, “Goodbye World!\n”);.


Stay Hungry, Stay Foolish

October 6, 2011

Steve Jobs is dead. Headline news on Radio 4 as I woke up this morning. It feels deep. This is not because of the loss of a technology genius – hell, we all know Apple wouldn’t exist without Woz, the Mac was really Jeff Raskin, Pixar was really Jeff Lasseter etc. Its not just that he was an amazing business visionary – as Jonathan Fay tweeted this morning, “Steve Jobs championed design, pushed the limits of his people, and believed in dreams long enough to see them become reality.”

No. Its the story, the arc of a life lived in public that we all shared – the kid in the garage, the billion dollar success, the casting out into the darkness, the crossing of the Rubicon back into Rome as victor, the battle against cancer. Orbiting Frog quoted from his 2005 commencement address at Stanford. “Remembering that you are going to die is the best way I know to avoid the trap of thinking you have something to lose. You are already naked. There is no reason not to follow your heart.”

I hadn’t seen this clip before. Its fifteen minutes but well worth a look. He tells Stanford students that the best thing he ever did was to drop out of college, and the second best thing was to get fired and re-think life. And then he tells these bright young things, on a sunny day, at the start of their adventure in Life, that the really important thing is to remember that you will die. He also recalls the Whole Earth Catalog (remember that ?). On the back cover of the final edition it had a picture of a country road, and the words “Stay Young, Stay Foolish”.

If you want a  lighter  Steve moment,  try this.  As ever, timing is all.

The Pale Face of Stanford

July 6, 2008

Your correspondent is now in Silicon Valley. My tour of duty as Head of Physics is now over, and I am starting a year long sabbatical at SLAC. My main aim is to kick-start some collaborations with LSST folk, especially on the database side, but its also exciting to be here just after the launch of the gamma-ray space telescope, GLAST . Meanwhile I will also keep working on the VO. AstroGrid has a tradition of being more or less location independent, and it has been noted that I will be working in the same time zone as our official night-owl, Dave Morris.

The story at SLAC these days is in some ways similar to STFC-land, and in others very different. They have had to lay off 200 staff, the B-factory has closed down, work on the ILC has been halted, and the famous tunnel, the straightest object in the world, has been turned into a light source, the LCLS . Less particle physics, more chemistry, biology and materials physics. However they are also diversifying into astrophysics, which is why I am here. This builds on their experience – the GLAST Large Area Telescope (LAT) is really like a particle physics detector in space, with silicon strip trackers and a calorimeter, and the LSST data rate is a drip compared to Babar, let alone the LHC.

Here is another interesting distinction. A Senior Person told me he gets worn down by endless reviews of SLAC, which go on and on and nobody really takes any decisions. Much of our problem with STFC has I think been that the decision making has been too brash and bold….

Meanwhile, we are under pressure to prove our economic worth, as discussed in various comments on this blog over the last few days. Well, SLAC didn’t invent the Web, but it was the first meeting place of the Homebrew Computer Club which is where Jobs and Wozniak got started, and to whom Bill Gates addressed his Open Letter to Hobbyists. The street that SLAC is on, Sand Hill Road, contains an amazing density of venture capitalists. And of course Stanford as a whole is a hot house of ideas moving out from science to industry. Brin and Page built the Googleplex as close as they could to the Alma Mater.

Stanford itself originates from sentimental philanthropy. Leland Stanford was a self made California millionaire. The Stanfords were the Posh and Becks of their day, with newspapers full of stories of their opulent lifestyle in San Francisco. They also had a huge farm down south of the city in nowhere land. Tragedy struck the family in 1884 when their son died of Typhoid on a trip to Florence. So in the spirit of the times, they created the Leland Stanford Junior University in his memory.

So of course I knew none of this three days ago, but the mythology and historical resonances of a place like this are a kind of vapour that you can’t avoid breathing. Gets a bit mawkish sometimes though … Exploring the campus, I found the Cantor Art Centre. It has some good stuff, and a room full of Stanford memorabilia, including Leland Junior’s plaster death mask. It just sits there on the wall reminding you of the Victorian image of death. Milky white, hair neat, eyes closed.


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