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Flying Upside Down

By wiredog in Technology
Tue Jul 17, 2001 at 06:59:52 PM EST
Tags: Culture (all tags)

The articles by Tracy Kidder that were later expanded into the Pulitzer Prize winning "The Soul of a New Machine" are up at The Atlantic.

Flying Upside Down, which chronicled the creation of the Data General Eagle computer and, The Ultimate Toy, which chronicled the debugging of the same computer, focus on the technology and, especially, the people (the soul of the machine) who made the Eagle happen.

The Eagle was a 32 bit super mini, intended to compete with the Vax 11/780, which was released just before the PC came along to make them all irrelevant. I bought the book when it came out, still have it, and it was a major influence on my decision to become a programmer. Computing seemed to (and often does) have the sort of full-bore balls-to-the-wall excitement (and stress) that appealed to a teenager. Now that I'm in my mid-thirties, the same age as many of the people profiled, I understand the guy who, in the throes of debugging, quit and left the note: "I'm going to a commune in Vermont and will deal with no unit of time shorter than a season."


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Related Links
o The Atlantic
o Flying Upside Down
o Data General
o The Ultimate Toy
o Also by wiredog

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Flying Upside Down | 14 comments (8 topical, 6 editorial, 0 hidden)
Oh So Wrong! (3.50 / 4) (#4)
by greyrat on Tue Jul 17, 2001 at 12:49:10 PM EST

...intended to compete with the Vax 11/780.
What? NOTHING can compete with an 11/780!


"It is our belief, however, that serious professional users will run out of things they can do with UNIX. They'll want a real system and will end up doing VMS when they get to be serious about programming." -- Ken Olsen, CEO of DEC, 1984

~ ~ ~
Did I actually read the article? No. No I didn't.
"Watch out for me nobbystyles, Gromit!"

About your signature ... (none / 0) (#12)
by Kalani on Sun Jul 22, 2001 at 03:39:28 AM EST

Not that I intend to open up a Windows/Unix debate buuuuuut ....

It's not like VMS is dead ... the original principles are in Windows NT. David Cutler took his team of VMS programmers to MS when it was clear that politics at DEC was beating out the developers (it didn't help that he moved his whole operation far from the corporate headquarters either.)

"I [think] that ultimately physics will not require a mathematical statement; in the end the machinery will be revealed and the laws will turn out to be simple, like the checker board."
--Richard Feynman
[ Parent ]
shorter than a season (4.00 / 1) (#7)
by adamba on Tue Jul 17, 2001 at 01:59:01 PM EST

When I left Microsoft, that was the subject line of my "goodbye" email. Don't think anyone got the reference though.

There was a "Where are they now?" update about the team in Wired last year.

- adam

Thanks (5.00 / 1) (#8)
by wiredog on Tue Jul 17, 2001 at 02:32:55 PM EST

That's why I read, and post to, k5. For links like that.

"Anything that's invented after you're 35 is against the natural order of things", Douglas Adams
[ Parent ]
And, yes in Vermont (3.00 / 1) (#10)
by yankeehack on Tue Jul 17, 2001 at 04:04:08 PM EST

We've got four seasons, all beautiful. (Except winter sometimes tends to overstay a bit.) :-P

Perhaps what we really need is a new feminism...It will focus on something that liberal feminism has failed to do--instill a sense of dignity, honor and s

Does this happen outside of engineering? (none / 0) (#11)
by labradore on Thu Jul 19, 2001 at 09:08:34 PM EST

Last summer I spent a week "debugging" a Wiltron 0.025 to 105 GHz RF testing set. The thing is a (custom, embedded) computer attached to a lot of very expensive and very precise test equipment. (It was the size of a household oven and cost approximately $250M 15 years ago. It is used to test waveguide transmission/loss characteristics and transmitter and receiver propagation characteristics. This thing was custom made for the Air Force and basically works on the priciple of black magic (RF guys like to think of themselves as magicians--i think.) After the end of the two weeks I, being a lowly college-intern/tech, was asked by the "Big Boss" about the state of the unit (expecting that it be essentially working) and I told him exactly what was broken and what was unlikely to ever work unless we tracked down the guys who built the thing.

He accused me of not knowing how to operate the machine.

I showed what I knew to a couple of EE's (one PhD and one w/ Masters) and I spent the next week working on other things. At the staff meeting at the beginning of the next week, the EE's reported that they were only to get slightly more functionality than I had been able to because they rebuilt a couple of circuits that I had told them were probably malfunctioning. They did not think that any more progress could be made in "reasonable time" without contacting the original designers.

Since they had college degrees they were not accused of not knowing how to operate the machine. But they did get paid ~25 times what I did to waste a week tinkering on it.

What does this mean? When debugging what is said doesn't matter as much as who says it and you probably never aught to tell your boss the truth.

The Credibility of Interns (none / 0) (#13)
by Ruidh on Mon Jul 23, 2001 at 04:22:52 PM EST

I use interns in my (non-computer related) field. When you give a project to an intern and they come up with unexpected results, the supervisor *should* question those results in great depth. Sometimes that involves having more experienced people review the intern's work because often an intern dosn't fully understand the project they've been assigned. It is an issue of experience, not one of ability. Generally, an intern dosn't have the experience to recognize when results will look wrong to their supervisor. This element of judgement is the single most important thing which someone needs to develop with experience. When the review shows the intern was correct, I give credit where credit is due and that intern rises in my esteem. We have formal review processes for interns and I will reflect that outstanding performance in my review -- the intern has exceeded my expectations. The lesson you should *not* draw is to hide unexpected results from your boss. The lesson you should learn is how to recognize the boss who is secure enough in his own position and abilities to share credit.
"Laissez-faire is a French term commonly interpreted by Conservatives to mean 'lazy fairy,' which is the belief that if governments are lazy enough, the Good Fairy will come down from heaven and do all their work for them."
[ Parent ]
two brief Tom West stories (5.00 / 1) (#14)
by johnny on Wed Jul 25, 2001 at 06:01:17 PM EST

My first high tech job was as a technical writer at Data General in 1980, where I worked on some of the "Eagle" manuals. I stayed there 4 years and eventually got to know Tom West a little bit.

One time he was talking about some of the DG guys who had defected to startup Apollo, who were building a box based on the motorolla 68k. At the time DG designed its own chips & its fastest machines were bit-sliced. So West says, "Well, if somebody wants to stick a 68k on a board and call himself a computer engineer. . . <long thoughtful pause> well I guess that's his business. But that's not what we call computer engineering at Data General."

Another time he was giving a talk to my group and somebody asks about product strategy. West draws two points on the white board: one lower left, one uppper right. "Product strategy," he says. "You got your low end." (points to lower left). "You got your high end." (points to upper right.). "And then you got all this baroque shit in the middle." (Draws squiggly diagonal line connecting them.) "That's product strategy. OK, enough marketing. Let's talk about engineering. . ."

yr frn,
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Flying Upside Down | 14 comments (8 topical, 6 editorial, 0 hidden)
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