The Bug

Trying to keep the number of book recommendations to a minimum is difficult when I keep stumbling over novels by Ellen Ullman (here’s my micro-review of her first book, Close to the Machine). This time though it’s The Bug, a story about programming, information theory and obsession.

The protaganist, Ethan Levin, begins to feel his life slipping away from him the more he encounters an elusive glitch in a piece of software. His emotional state spins out of control as he tries to deal with all sorts of problems that must be familiar to anyone working with code and large scale design systems; it’s how Ullman describes these unintended side effects that has caught my attention so firmly.

This small exchange between Ethan and another programmer explains so much of what I’ve experienced lately in working with a team (or should I say, this extract explains the team’s problem with me?). Ethan asks a colleague how a specific piece of code works:

"You wrote this—what? a couple of months ago? And it's all gone down a well, hasn't it? Gone, vanished, wiped clean from your brain. You don't remember a thing about it. Do you? Do you!"

Thorne gave Ethan his back, but Ethan didn’t need a reply. Of course Thorne didn't remember. Like every programmer, he wrote thousands of lines of code a week, all in the interest of passing ideas through his brain then putting them into the machine, where he never had to think about them again. There was a time when he did know what his code was doing—when he wrote it, when he sat there with his brain exploded and coded like mad to get it all down, all the exploded thoughts, before they blew away.

But as Ethan stood there looking at Thorne’s back, it came to him that the explosion could not run backward. The thoughts were gone, decomposed, passed into code, where they worked, where they ran, but could not be reassembled into human-think.

Ellen Ullman, The Bug