Paratalk or Torque is where I take a paragraph, mostly at random, and talk about it however I wish. It’s an old column I’ve revived. It has fairly broad scope and could go on for ages. Let me know if you get bored, I may not listen though.
Today’s paragraph comes from The Soul of a New Machine by Tracy Kidder. Published in 1981 it’s the story of building a computer. Not just any computer, but a fast new computer, one built in record time. They were trying to build a computer in one year, a 32-bit supermini, more powerful than anything on the market at that time.
Assembled from the comments of a few of the young men on the team, the typical engineer, an imaginary creature perhaps, wear a white undershirt and a plastic pouch (know [sic] to some as a ‘nerd pack’) in his breast pocket, in order to keep his pens from soiling his clothes. A electronic calculator – used to be a slide rule – hangs like a ring of janitor’s keys from his belt. Jim Guyer of the Hardy Boys, who wore a beard and drove a large motorcycle, added, ‘A lot of people think that an engineer is shut off in a little corner and doesn’t give a damn about anything else except his own little thing.’ Guyer said, ‘They exist. And they’re the most obvious engineers, because in their isolation they’re obvious.
Reading this paragraph back reminds me I must proof everything more carefully than normal. I did consider choosing a paragraph for its lack of the letter ‘n’ but I decided I’d just proof it carefully. I’m having issues with my keyboard. The letter ‘n’ sometimes works and sometimes not. There are a large number of instances of the letter ‘n’ in this paragraph. After proofreading carefully I hope I’ve found all the missing letters. The other challenge to my typing is that one of my finger nails is rather too long, it impedes me. I’m sure you don’t need to know that last point, but it’s on my mind.
What we have here is a description of a mythical engineer. They are depicted as people who might possibly be a little absent-minded, yet still want to keep their clothes clean. I find that rather amusing. I know people who resemble this image except they never noticed if their shirt was soiled from their pens. On their other hand, their slide rule was their best friend and went everywhere with them. Some of them didn’t need a slide rule but it was probably of a comfort to them.
I found this paragraph a bit of a challenge to understand. It’s written in a time when people used longer sentences, at least, that’s my thinking. Part of that thinking is based on something one of my class mates said after class one day at uni. We’d been doing a session where we shared our writing and accepted criticism. I found a problem with this class, I could listen to the criticism, but struggled not to ask further questions. We weren’t allowed to ask further questions. Most of this class were of a totally different generation, many of them were straight out of school. One young lady told me I had old writing. I’m not sure what old writing is, I wasn’t allowed to ask. I’m assuming it’s the length of my sentences, but I really don’t know. Of course, it could be how I structure my sentences. And that could be because of all the books I’ve read. Being of a different generation means I’ve read different authors. Our writing is often the sum of our reading. I found this paragraph to have more commas and dashes than I am comfortable with.
I haven’t read this book in years but my memory is that of a very exciting time. It details a time that we’ll never see again. Computers are now mass produced, the hardware is easy to find, the software is already written. Back then programmers were writing the software directly into a text editor. The screen would have had 80 columns across and 25 lines down. You could scroll down to see more lines, but you could only have 25 lines on one screen. Unlike the software we use today you only had one tab to work with. If you wanted to work with two pieces of software you needed to print one out first. It was very different to today. At least they were probably past the days of needing to create punch cards and then run those through the machine for loading into the computer.
Punch cards are a whole new discussion and I might leave that for another time. If you wanted to look at this book, or even buy it, you can find it available for sale here.