Close to the Machine: Technophilia and Its Discontents

Ellen Ullmann, Author
Ellen Ullmann, Author City Lights Books $21.95 (190p) ISBN 978-0-87286-337-8
Reviewed on: 12/30/1996
Release date: 01/01/1997
Paperback - 189 pages - 978-0-87286-332-3
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Ullman--software engineer, businesswoman and rugged individual--wittily spills the beans about the technology on which we all depend. ""If people really knew how software got written, I'm not sure if they'd give their money to a bank or get on an airplane ever again."" The dirty little secret, says Ullman, is that she and her associates, ""barely know what we're doing."" Software projects start out crisp and clear, the epitome of rationality, but then real life and real requirements intrude and soon the clean design is covered with jury-rigging. Old software programs (""legacy systems"") are particularly treacherous; the longer they've been around, the less any one person understands them. As for the personality factor, programmers are such odd-balls that managing them is like ""trying to herd cats."" But for the programmers themselves, computing is just plain fun, and working with others on a high-pressure project can be a nearly sexual pleasure. Accordingly, the scenes in this short memoir with the most electricity have to do with last-minute rushes to complete software projects and the tension of midnight debugging sessions fueled by pizza, beer and Chinese food. Tellingly, the passages about Ullman's bisexual personal life aren't always as compelling. Ullman has contributed essays to Resisting the Virtual Life, Wired Women and commentaries to National Public Radio. (Oct.)
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