As I set out at six this morning on my daily walk, under a beautiful full moon, my thoughts turned to the very helpful comment by Marinus Ferreira about the underlying engineering problems behind the botched rollout of the Affordable Care Act insurance exchanges. I reflected, as I often have before, on the curious fact that most of us really have little or no idea how the things that we use actually work. Several years ago my older son, Patrick [the chess grandmaster and hedge fund manager] gave me a very interesting book about the design engineering problems in the invention and development of the commonplace things we all use. The first chapter was devoted to the invention of the paper clip. Very few of us, certainly not I, have ever thought about the invention of the paper clip. I recall that when I came upon the letter file from the 1917-18 term that my socialist grandfather served as New York City Alderman, I found that sets of papers were held together by straight pins, presumably because at that time the paper clip had not yet been invented. The second chapter of the book dealt with the tricky engineering task of designing a pop top beer or soda can. The central problem was that if you made the top too easy to take off, the pressure of the carbonated beverage in the can would blow the top off prematurely, whereas if you made it too difficult to take off, the tab would just break off in your hand. Who knew?
When I got my IPhone, which seems to have caused as much trouble in cyberspace as that coke bottle did in the Kalahari in The Gods Must Be Crazy, my younger son Tobias, the law professor, who serves as my IPhone guru [he solved my problem of the rotating screen] pointed out to me something that had never occurred to me, namely that a mobile phone is essentially a shortwave radio. A proper appreciation of that fact would put in perspective the widespread anxiety about NSA spying. I mean, we are all now amateur ham radio operators.
Which led me back, finally, to Marinus Ferreira's point. Most of us have very little idea at all of how computers actually work. Oh, we -- by which I mean the readers of this blog -- all know how to word process and surf the web and play computer games and maybe use an Excel spreadsheet, and some of at least [not I] are adept at photo shopping a picture. But how many of us know, all the way down, how computers work, in the way that red-blooded American boys are expected to know how the internal combustion engine works?
Let us think about this in layers, as it were, starting [as Aristotle would say] with things that are first in the order of knowing and proceeding to things that are first in the order of being. [Philosophy is really very useful for expressing commonplace ideas in fancy ways.] All of us can use a computer, as I have said. A handful of us [again, not I] can actually program -- that is to say, write sets of instructions for a computer, even perhaps create entire applications. But that is probably a very small fraction of all the reasonably skilled computer users -- say, one percent or fewer?
Even if you can program, you are still operating very much on the surface, as it were. You may have no very precise idea of what you are actually causing to happen when you type the commands on the keyboard. Now, I understand the theoretical significance of John von Neumann's brilliant idea of expressing all mathematics in a binary number system. Briefly, for those of you who have never given it any thought, a number system based on ones and zeroes perfectly models the on/off or open/closed structure of an electrical network -- 0 for no current flowing through a connection and 1 for current flowing through. Every on/off switch is representable by a "bit," and a string of eight zeroes and ones in binary notation, representing a particular specification of ons and offs in an electrical circuit, is a "byte." If you use the eighth binary digit as a test of the success of the transmission across a junction, that leaves you with a seven place binary number, which is to say 128 different combinations of ones and zeroes [two to the seventh power]. When I look at my computer keyboard, I find 47 keys with symbols on them, which, what with upper and lower case, gives 94 different binary numbers to which one can assign letters and symbols. That leaves another 34 for other uses. Why not a sixteen bit byte? Because in the early days that was too complicated to build into the wiring of the computer's central processor. Why not fewer? Because then the letters and symbols you wanted would not all be modeled by a single byte of binary code [the next step down from 128 is 64, of course.]
But all of this, which I understand at a perfectly useless abstract level, is still very much on the surface. What is really going on is the flow of electrical currents along circuits -- at first, circuits of wires and tubes, subject to heating problems very difficult to manage, then later printed circuits, and then in solid state transistors, which I do not understand in any real sense at all.
Not one in ten thousand of us actually understands the physics and engineering of a transistor [which suggests that there are thirty thousand people in America --a bit of an undercount, maybe, but not by much, I would imagine.] And yet all of us every day use computers [and cell phones, which are really little computers as well as shortwave radios].
If we consider the entire sweep of the history of human beings, which is to say one hundred thousand years or somewhat more, this is a very odd and unusual state of affairs. For at least ninety percent of that time, and maybe more like ninety-nine percent, most people had a grasp of how their technology worked. There were specialists, of course -- ironmongers, silver smiths, carpenters, shipwrights and wainwrights and wheelwrights [I omit philosophers, kings, and theologians] -- but even if you did not have the skill to fashion a piece of iron into a sword, you could watch a blacksmith do it and grasp what was going on. Today, nothing remotely like that is true. How many of us really know what is involved in making a machine that can turn out Barbie Dolls?
Which, by a circuitous route [Tristram Shandy has nothing on me when it comes to digressions], brings me back to Barack Obama and the botched rollout of the insurance exchanges website. Obama is an intelligent man, but I very much doubt he understands as much as Marinus Ferreira does about the problems inherent in launching a website of that nature. Lord knows, Kathleen Sibelius certainly does not seem to. [For my foreign readers, she is the former Governor of Kansas who is currently Secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services, and hence the person in charge of the website.]
So perhaps I should not be as censorious of Obama as I was. Then again, the mark of an effective manager is knowing what he or she does not know and finding someone who does.