Thursday, March 29, 2012

Speaking in Code

“ Debugging is twice as hard as writing the code in the first place. Therefore, if you write the code as cleverly as possible, you are, by definition, not smart enough to debug it. ” - Brian Kernighan

Early morning finds me sitting at my brother's kitchen table. I'm cradling a cup of hot coffee watch the  blustery woods wake up when I ask my brother to describe to me what he does for a living. In my mind I know he works on chips. His team worked on a chip for the iPhone years ago; they worked on a chip for a router for the country of France; he's written code and more importantly, I find out, he debugs it. "Debugging," he tells me, "is much harder than creating." I liken it to the work of a sharp editor. It takes talent and skill to see above and around and into and beyond the creation.

"Tell me about this chip that's coming in today," I request. "What's it look like?"

"Imagine a human hair. The wires in the chip we're testing today are only a fraction of the width of a human hair." Hard to imagine something so small, so invisible, so fast. He's expecting a new chip to arrive from Taiwan today. It means a late night at work testing the chip and getting it to do what it's designed to do. He and his team will begin the debugging process today.  I asked him if he works on microchips and got schooled in the language of chips and processors.

Apparently microchip is an old word, a word that described the smaller chips that were measured in microns. The chips John works on are measured in nanos--there's not a word for that. Nano chip isn't really used.  "There are ASICS (application specific integrated circuits) and network processors.  But we  just call it a chip," he said.

 The chip they will test is a network processor. I can't quite visualize what that means. John explained that this chip will transmit 300 million packets (of information) a second. Of course in my mind, I'm seeing small packages--like the painted magnets my four-year-old niece wrapped in white butcher paper and gave me-- moving from hand to hand.

Three million is beyond my mind's eye. The packets are computer code, those 1s and0s that make everything happen seemingly in the air right before your eyes. John says he is "a solution looking for a problem" and I think really he is a creationist, making something where nothing seemed to exist before. Conjuring magic.


  1. You seem to start understanding the language and ideas of technology. It is truly a magic to me how technology works.


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