"You Are Not Expected to Understand This"

How 26 Lines of Code Changed the World

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A fun book, a collection of essays about coding. One of my main duties in my old job at the University Near Here. The topics are super diverse. The book’s title is taken from an amusing comment in the context-switching code in Version 6 UNIX back in the mid-70s. People thought it was meant to imply the associated code was tricky, obscure, and somewhat incomprehensible. (We’ve all seen code like that.) But the actual purpose was different, it seems.

What was, arguably, the very first line of code? “The answer may surprise you.”

There are essays about the origins of email, computer gaming (Spacewar!), Internet Relay Chat, JPEG, web bugs, popup ads, search engines, the “Like” button. Bitcoin. Roomba. The encryption algorithm Your Federal Government tried to classify as a “munition” and (unsuccessfully) suppress. Famous bugs: Heartbleed, the Morris Worm, the doomed Mars Climate Orbiter. The VW code that caused their diesel cars to cheat on emissions testing. The demise of databases that demanded a strict gender binary.

Unfortunately there are a couple clunkers. The essay on the development of BASIC starts: “During the first half of 1964, two college-age White men, …” If you see that as a warning flag that what follows will be remarkably tedious, you're correct: the author constructs a clumsy framework of racial grievance over boring old history. Almost as bad is “The Police Beat Algorithm”, a tendentious description of an effort to direct law enforcement most heavily toward locales and people with unusually high levels of crime. Surprise, this had a “disparate impact” on communities of color. The author takes this as prima facie evidence of nefarious racism instead of an effort to minimize victimization. The author doesn’t point out that the victims in high-crime areas are also disproportionately “Black and brown”.

Overall, though, an interesting read.

Last Modified 2023-05-30 8:54 AM EDT