Organization site - Summer 2001
Issue: 2/20/01

Review: Patterns on the Stone

The Pattern on the Stone: Simple Ideas That Make Computers Work
By U: Daniel Hillis
Basic Books, Perseus Books Group, New York, 1998

Reviewed by:
Robert Mercer
Cypress College

After reading "The Pattern on the Stone," one gets a great urge to build a computer. My personal preference would be one made out of PVC piping and valves using water as inputs and outputs. A software engineer who read this book is trying to design a computer using 16 students with 3X5 cards inscribed with "yes" or "no."

This book demonstrates it is only an accident of history that has brought us the beige box full of silicon chips powered by electricity. Computers existed in human imagination even before humans could build computers. Computers can be built of any material. However, my PVC model would take graduate students hours of running about turning about 150 valves on and off to play a game of tic -tac-toe.

"The Pattern on the Stone" reminds me of my other favorite text book, "How to Keep Your Volkswagen Alive: A guide for the complete idiot." Starting at page 1, and continuing some 200-odd pages, I grew to truly understand the internal combustion engine while completely rebuilding a blown beetle engine. I became the intellectual master of that machine.

While journalists will probably not be rebuilding a crashed computer, it is nice to cruise the information highway knowing the process by which a laptop consumes the data bits and converts zeros and ones to words and JPEGs on the screen.

Hillis begins with George Boole and Claude Shannon, who, working in separate centuries, developed Boolean Algebra and Information Theory mathematics. Boolean Logic is the basis of all search engines on the world wide web and many mass media instructors devote at least several minutes lecturing about Shannon's and Warren Weaver's model of communication (sender, channel, noise, etc.).

This is the chapter where one learns to build a tic-tac-toe playing computer while, for the first time, understanding those basic DOS commands which one plugged in by rote. This is also the part where one learns that computers indeed do operate using the same principle as hydraulic devices.

But that's the point of this book. Computers are ideas that manipulate ideas. Engineering is just a necessary inconvenience.

"And," "or," and "invert" are the basic commands in Boolean Algebra. Of course, these commands are never given by the journalist. However, the journalist can learn what one is doing when one chooses "binary" and "24 data bits" when setting up a JPEC; file; what really happens when one chooses a particular rate of compression; or why an "8 bit" set ting equals 256 colors on one's monitor.

While the author encourages the readers to understand what they can, and not worry about what they cannot grasp in the first reading, it is difficult not to learn a lot in this book. When computer gurus snow the conversation with such words as "finitestate machine," the journalist who has read this book just pictures a combination lock or a traffic light. Clock rates of 33, 66, even 800 megahertz make sense after reading this text.

Hey, this stuff isn't rocket science! It's all about communication.

About the time the reader's mind feels full, Hillis discusses heuristics and fuzzy logic. Just as the nonscientist always suspected, computers do a lot of guessing.

Finally, of importance to mass media instructors, Hillis informs readers they are currently using the world's largest parallel processing computer— the world wide web. Once a theoretical type of computer, it has been created by an accident of history. Each user is processing different pieces of data that are a part of a larger problem. Partial answers to the larger question are rendered every time a user initiates a Boolean search routine on Yahoo!

Hillis writes that the rudimentary web shares attributes with a much more complex computer—the human mind—as it seeks to intellectually master the reason for being.