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The Pattern on the Stone

by W. Daniel Hillis

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357453,871 (3.9)3
Most people are baffled by how computers work and assume that they will never understand them. What they don't realize--and what Daniel Hillis's short book brilliantly demonstrates--is that computers' seemingly complex operations can be broken down into a few simple parts that perform the same simple procedures over and over again. Computer wizard Hillis offers an easy-to-follow explanation of how data is processed that makes the operations of a computer seem as straightforward as those of a bicycle.Avoiding technobabble or discussions of advanced hardware, the lucid explanations and colorful anecdotes inThe Pattern on the Stone go straight to the heart of what computers really do. Hillis proceeds from an outline of basic logic to clear descriptions of programming languages, algorithms, and memory. He then takes readers in simple steps up to the most exciting developments in computing today--quantum computing, parallel computing, neural networks, and self-organizing systems.Written clearly and succinctly by one of the world's leading computer scientists,The Pattern on the Stone is an indispensable guide to understanding the workings of that most ubiquitous and important of machines: the computer.… (more)

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Detailed Review:

Preface: Magic in the Stone
Just generally hyperbolic.

Chapter 1: Nuts and Bolts
Incomprehensible tic-tac-toe motivating example, but the cute pictures of mechanical logic gates rather redeem it. One of the main points is that it's not the transistor technology that makes a computer, its the bits. So why call this book "The Pattern in the Stone" if it could just as well have been made of wood and springs?

Chapter 2: Universal Building Blocks
Logical functions and finite state machines. The "Firing Squad Synchronization Problem", which I don't recall ever having heard of before. This problem is an easy one to solve with a pushdown automaton, but hard w/out a stack; I had to look up a solution. TODO: Try implementing it, you can even make it look pretty.

Chapter 3: Programming
Starts out with a quick chat about bugs, the computer that sends threatening letters to all the customers who haven't paid up the $0.00 that they owe. Bugs of this class are constantly being generated every day, through lack of math on the part of programmers. A bad metaphor about the shared understanding between the programmer and the computer. There is none.

Talking to the Computer
I'm a software engineer and I don't really think of myself as talking to the computer. I modify programs, which I expect will be executed. There is a brief chat about Logo; no explicit loops but some recursion. There is a brief comparison of other languages; offering actual insight about there differences. There is a caveat about object-oriented languages which really dates the book, which was published the year I started grad school. The author seems to have thought that all object-oriented languages were used like StarLogo or the newer Greenfoot, chaotically.

Making the Connection
Tries to answer how we get from a Logo program down to the finite state machine with logic of previous chapters. We can think of a chip as a finite state machine with a memory. It goes through several steps as in: read the instruction from the location specified by the PC, execute the operation specified by the instruction, load a new value into the PC. Subroutines are sequences of instructions at an address. They are invoked using the Jump instruction. But now you need a stack to handle the return address. Not just a finite state machine after all! An operating system is just the subroutines that are loaded by default (a pretty reductionist view, but I guess it fits with the simplifications of the rest of the book).

Translating the Language
Very simple, but not wrong explanation of compilers and interpreters. Insists that this is a bit of a continuum, which is the right attitude to take.

Not bad!

Chapter 5: Algorithms and Heuristics
Uses "algorithm" to mean "algorithm that produces and exact answer", uses "heuristic" to mean "algorithm that produces a probably pretty good answer by means of an heuristic".

The Algorithmic Guarantee
About computational complexity and NP-complete problems. The traveling salesman is an example of an NP-complete problem.

Settling for Almost Always
Discussion of game-playing algorithms, which may work by defining a function which scores any particular arrangement of pieces and then explores the solution space to a set depth, expecting the opponent to choose what the computer considers the best move according to its function. I did some of this in my AI class years ago.

Fitness Landscapes
Searching a solution space using heuristics.
  themulhern | Dec 29, 2018 |
Best book about computers I've ever seen ( )
  Baku-X | Jan 10, 2017 |
Best book about computers I've ever seen ( )
  BakuDreamer | Sep 7, 2013 |
TBR
  miketroll | Feb 23, 2007 |
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Most people are baffled by how computers work and assume that they will never understand them. What they don't realize--and what Daniel Hillis's short book brilliantly demonstrates--is that computers' seemingly complex operations can be broken down into a few simple parts that perform the same simple procedures over and over again. Computer wizard Hillis offers an easy-to-follow explanation of how data is processed that makes the operations of a computer seem as straightforward as those of a bicycle.Avoiding technobabble or discussions of advanced hardware, the lucid explanations and colorful anecdotes inThe Pattern on the Stone go straight to the heart of what computers really do. Hillis proceeds from an outline of basic logic to clear descriptions of programming languages, algorithms, and memory. He then takes readers in simple steps up to the most exciting developments in computing today--quantum computing, parallel computing, neural networks, and self-organizing systems.Written clearly and succinctly by one of the world's leading computer scientists,The Pattern on the Stone is an indispensable guide to understanding the workings of that most ubiquitous and important of machines: the computer.

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