Thinking Machines – two perspectives

I came across a nice essay by Daniel Hillis on Richard Feynman‘s involvement with Thinking Machines. He has shared quite a few interesting points on the development of the first Connection Machine (a supercomputer), and also on the contribution of Feynman to the project. They were also involved in finding actual applications for the very powerful machines, and explored a variety of fields:

In retrospect I realize that in almost everything that we worked on together, we were both amateurs. In digital physics, neural networks, even parallel computing, we never really knew what we were doing. But the things that we studied were so new that no one else knew exactly what they were doing either. It was amateurs who made the progress.

The essay is a very good read, though a bit technical in some parts. It also sheds some light on the drive behind the founders. However, things seem to have gone really astray in the 90s with the eventual bankruptcy in 1994.

This brings me to the other article on Thinking Machines that I read recently which was on the interview process towards the last stages of the corporation.

… The project was a bit abstract, so I asked how it could be applied for business computing purposes. He scrunched his nose and scoffed at the very notion that I’d ask such a question.

As it turned out, Andrew wasn’t the only non-believer. Just as DARPA was about to send more barrel-loads of cash to Thinking Machines, The Wall Street Journal rained on their “subsidized sales” parade. That led to an embarrassed Bush I administration, which led towards an end of support from daddy.

With the impressively inept Sheryl Handler at the helm — the CEO who prioritized things like publishing a cookbook with recipes from their cafeteria instead of, say, trying to sell their increasingly useless Connection Machine — Thinking Machines quickly sank and filed for bankruptcy a short two years later.

I guess it shows how things can go downhill for a corporation unless there are some real world applications for its products. It is quite ironical in this case, as the founding engineers seem to have thought of quite a number of applications (highly specialised though), but by the time the second article, the employees seem to have very little clue as to the machine’s real world usage. I wonder what happened in the decade in between (possible explanation).

Interestingly, the wikipedia page for Thinking Machines lists both the essay and the article.

What does your city say?

Paul Graham’s latest essay “Cities and ambitions” touches upon the topic of the way a city can influence a person’s ambition. The post is US-centric, but there are quite a few interesting points in it.

No matter how determined you are, it’s hard not to be influenced by the people around you. It’s not so much that you do whatever a city expects of you, but that you get discouraged when no one around you cares about the same things you do.


Does anyone who wants to do great work have to live in a great city? No; all great cities inspire some sort of ambition, but they aren’t the only places that do. For some kinds of work, all you need is a handful of talented colleagues.
What cities provide is an audience, and a funnel for peers. These aren’t so critical in something like math or physics, where no audience matters except your peers, and judging ability is sufficiently straightforward that hiring and admissions committees can do it reliably.


Some people know at 16 what sort of work they’re going to do, but in most ambitious kids, ambition seems precede anything specific to be ambitious about. They know they want to do something great. They just haven’t decided yet whether they’re going to be a rock star or a brain surgeon. There’s nothing wrong with that. But it means if you have this most common type of ambition, you’ll probably have to figure out where to live by trial and error. You’ll probably have to find the city where you feel at home to know what sort of ambition you have.

I was not able to entirely appreciate the points made regarding the various cities, having never visited any of them. However, I can draw some parallels with the Indian cities in which I have lived, mostly from a personal point of view rather than a professional one. I was born in Bangalore and spent the first 12 years of my life there. This was of course before the IT related growth, and the Bangalore of today is a lot more crowded and busy.

My next 10 years were in Chennai, one of the 4 Indian metropolitan cities. Chennai is a relatively serious and conservative city (my friends used to complain every time rock concerts bypassed Chennai and went to Bangalore). My last 3 years have been in Kolkata, my native place and another metro, and the lifestyle is quite relaxed. The weather of a city seems to have a considerable impact on the attitudes of its citizens (something my mother mentions quite often).

So, what quirks have you noticed about your city?

Extension compatibility status for Firefox 3

I was thinking about compiling my list for the compatibility status of extensions for Firefox 3, but it looks like the folks at lifehacker have already found a couple of sites that do the same:

Here’s 20 add-ons that are Firefox 3-compatible, and seven that aren’t yet.

Compatible ones (as on 28/5/2008 ) include Adblock plus, flashgot, StumbleUpon, Mouse Gestures among others, while some like Tab Mix Plus and Firebug are not compatible yet. There are some extensions missing from the lists though, like Greasemonkey and, so here’s my table for their status:

Extension name Status Notes
Greasemonkey Compatible works with hack* (current release is compatible with FF3 betas, but not RC1) bookmarks Compatible beta version FF3 compatible,
older version works with hack*
Google Gears Compatible  
DownThemAll! Compatible  
IE View Lite Compatible  
MR Tech Local Install Compatible works with hack* Now (20/6/2008) known as MR Tech Toolkit
PDF download Compatible  
Foxmarks Compatible Just updated on 27/5/2008
Tab Mix Plus Incompatible Developer version compatible with Firefox 3 available

* – these extensions work using the extensions.checkCompatibility=false hack

One of the things I have noticed is that incompatible extensions that use the password manager in Firefox do not work properly even with the hack. This is likely due to the change in the password management system in Firefox 3.

Update: I thought such a list would make a good addition to wikipedia, and I have added a section on extension compatibility to the List of Firefox extensions page. I’ve added the some of the extensions listed above for the time being. Hope others add to it :).

Update (18/6/08): Updated compatibility status for Greasemonkey and Gears. Added Tab Mix Plus status.

Update (20/6/08): Updated compatibility status for MR Tech.

Productivity 2.0 (non-serious)

I came across a humorous post from on an “innovative” way to measure productivity through SVN check-ins, which of course met with expected results, with some employees increasing their productivity by over 600%. It also led to the development of a nice little reusable asset that could be used to increase productivity:

Still, it irked Milo that he wasn’t reaching his full productivity potential. He was wasting a lot of time writing code; time that should be spent checking code in….


With his script, dubbed “PHLEGM” (Programmer’s Helper for Literally Engaging in General Machination, named by one of his colleagues), he could stretch what would usually be one checkin to 20-30 commits. It’s evolved like an open source project with his fellow team members adding new features.

The post also led me to an old Joel post on productivity related to Amazon’s attempt to measure customer service productivity based on number of calls logged:

“Thank you for calling, may I help you?” Then — Click! You’re cut off. That’s annoying. You just waited 10 minutes to get through to a human and you mysteriously got disconnected right away.

Or is it mysterious? According to Mike Daisey, Amazon rated their customer service representatives based on the number of calls taken per hour. The best way to get your performance rating up was to hang up on customers, thus increasing the number of calls you can take every hour.

Joel’s also been quite critical of productivity measurement and incentive based systems at work before. However, I can’t think of a better alternative to the usual rating systems used in companies, especially large ones with tens of thousands of employees. Can you?

Lies, leaky abstractions and children

I recently read the essay “Lies we tell children” by Paul Graham, in which he analyses the way in which adults create an abstracted and somewhat idealised world for children.

I’m using the word “lie” in a very general sense: not just overt falsehoods, but also all the more subtle ways we mislead kids. Though “lie” has negative connotations, I don’t mean to suggest we should never do this—just that we should pay attention when we do.

It is a lengthy, but thought provoking essay, and explores the different reasons for which real information is withheld from children. Reasons could range from just maintaining control to the difficulty of putting information in context.

Due to this, the world in a child’s mind takes a binary form consisting of absolutes – right and wrong, good and evil, black and white. This theme can also be seen quite clearly in movies for children (think of any of the Disney animations). However, during the transition from childhood to adulthood, this binary abstraction of the world begins to leak just like any computer related abstraction. Children begin to see the different shades between black and white, and general inconsistencies in the explanations given to them by adults. Some theories seem utterly illogical while others begin to make more sense. The real world also begins to test many of the ideals taught to them.

In this way, the journey to adulthood is somewhat like the transformation of a black and white world with two shades into a full colour world. Some misconceptions persist into adulthood, with inquisitiveness being the best tool to combat them.

Paul Graham’s conclusion from the same essay:

We arrive at adulthood with a kind of truth debt. We were told a lot of lies to get us (and our parents) through our childhood. Some may have been necessary. Some probably weren’t. But we all arrive at adulthood with heads full of lies.
There’s never a point where the adults sit you down and explain all the lies they told you. They’ve forgotten most of them. So if you’re going to clear these lies out of your head, you’re going to have to do it yourself.
Few do. Most people go through life with bits of packing material adhering to their minds and never know it. You probably never can completely undo the effects of lies you were told as a kid, but it’s worth trying. I’ve found that whenever I’ve been able to undo a lie I was told, a lot of other things fell into place.
Fortunately, once you arrive at adulthood you get a valuable new resource you can use to figure out what lies you were told. You’re now one of the liars. You get to watch behind the scenes as adults spin the world for the next generation of kids.
The first step in clearing your head is to realize how far you are from a neutral observer.

So how many misconceptions have you been able to shake off?