If there's one analogy that nauseates me every time some conceptually impotent speaker repeats it, it's the one that goes: If the automobile industry had advanced as quickly as the computer industry over the last decade, a Buick would now cost $1.50 excluding dealer prep charges, travel a million miles on a gallon of Shell unleaded and open for Barry Manilow in Las Vegas.
While there's some truth to this, the analogy leads too many people to the wrong, 'Gee, isn't computing cheap and wonderful,' conclusion.
On the contrary, while people would know exactly what to do if they had a $1.50 car that got super mileage, we have no idea what to do with this growing abundance of cheap computing power.
We're not just suffering an embarrassment of riches -- we're suffering a humiliation of riches. We're simply not yet clever enough to successfully channel this flood of cheap computer capacity that's deluging us. The bottom line is that we're not nearly as smart as we think we are or as we need to be.
For an interesting right-brain/left-brain approach to that bottom line, consider two new publications submitted for your approval.
For the right-brain touchie-feelie types, Microsoft Press (yes, that Microsoft) has brought out "Programmers at Work" -- a collection of interviews with 19 PC programmers who offer differing views on how to best exploit computer capacity.
PAW is not unlike those coffee-table interviews with authors, screenwriters and movie directors that seek insight into the "unique creative processes" of the artist, but without your usual pious, pompous and self-serving monologues that do more to obscure than to reveal.
These interviews, for the most part, are revealing and useful: They give a sense of the programmer's priorities and, yes, aesthetics, in designing software. If you accept (as I do) that computers are as much a medium as paper and film, then you will appreciate the trade-offs these programmers grappled with to bring you the software you use today.
One certainly can't quibble with the interview selections: Microsoft's Bill Gates (Fortune Magazine's $300 million man since Microsoft went public); Lotus 1-2-3 designer Johnathan Sachs; Andy Hertzfeld of the Macintosh operating system; and Japan's Toru Iwatani, the creator of Pac Man (remember Pac Man?) among others. This book has captured the first wave of PC programmers.
Some, such as Jef Raskin of Information Appliance, offer truly iconoclastic views of the programmer's mission: "I didn't want a computer. I wanted something that worked like an appliance. . . . Have you ever noticed that there are no Maytag users groups . . . ?"
Jaron Lanier of Visual Programming Language sees himself designing a "visual, concrete" representation of how the computer actually works, as if the computer language is a musical instrument that the programmer interactively modifies to render the appropriate blend of harmonies.
After reading this book, you will walk away with a good idea of how difficult it is to make the transition from software artiste to software entrepreneur.
While this group is hardly eclectic (overwhelmingly middle-class white male), there is unquestionably a certain spirit of curiosity and craftsmanship that makes these programmers people as well as software jockeys. This is not a trip to Nerdsville, U.S.A.
The book is $14.95 in paper/$19.95 hardcover from Microsoft Press at 16100 N.E. 36th, Box 97017, Redmond, Wash. 98073-9717.
But if you're more left-brain oriented, intent on exploiting computer capacity rather than reading about how others do it, by all means pick up a copy of AI Expert, a new magazine from the folks who publish Computer Language.
As the name implies, AI Expert is devoted to artificial intelligence/expert systems programming -- unquestionably the hottest topic in computerdom today.
Expert systems, you no doubt know, seek to replicate the intellectual expertise of humans in software, and numerous languages and techniques have been developed to make such programming possible on your PC.
The premiere issue of AI Expert has articles titled "Control Over Inexact Reasoning," "Concurrency in Intelligent Systems," "Rule Based Programming in OPS 83" and other lighthearted subjects. This is a magazine in which even the ads are interesting.
Charter subscriptions are available at $27 for 12 issues and should be sent to AI Expert, P.O. Box 10952, Palo Alto, Calif. 94303-0968.