Worth Reading: Anything You Can Do, I Can Do Meta

June 13, 2007

Anything You Can Do, I Can Do Meta from last January’s issue of Technology Review (how do I FIND these things?) profiles Charles Simonyi, who designed Microsoft Office (as well as worked on the world’s first word processor, back at Xerox PARC). He’s perhaps the most successful programmer in the world. (The article makes the distinction early on between programmers like Simonyi and entrepreneurs like Bill Gates.)

The piece is worth a read for its content; I’d never heard of Simonyi before and liked his ideas about metacomputing and “intentional software.”

But the article has some problems.

I didn’t understand what intentional software was until the second-to-last page of the fourteen page piece; pages 13 and 14 look like they were sidebars in the original magazine spread. When the article was moved to the Web, editors just tacked the sidebars on to what is otherwise a well-written piece. I don’t want to have to wait until the end to find out what I’m reading about. If it’s a sidebar in the magazine, it should be a sidebar online.

On the other hand, the reason intentional software wasn’t explained too well could be because it’s a fairly murky concept. Scott Rosenberg could have spent more time detailing the arguments of Simonyi’s critics, who get less than a page of space.

But yet again, as a profile of a person, it’s a good story. Rosenberg uses some great quotes and has some great images.

In the corner of the left-hand screen, a goggle-eyed paper clip popped up: the widely reviled “Office Assistant” that Microsoft introduced in 1997. Simonyi tried to ignore the cartoon aide’s antic fidgeting, but he was stymied. “Nothing is working,” he sighed. “That’s because Clippy is giving me some help.”

I was puzzled. “You mean you haven’t turned Clippy off?” Long ago, I’d hunted through Office’s menus and checked whichever box was required to throttle the annoying anthropomorph once and for all.

“I don’t know how,” Simonyi admitted, with a little laugh that seemed to say, Yes, I know, isn’t it ironic?

On Simonyi’s work at Berkeley Computer Corporation:

One night, Simonyi showed up in a see-through black outfit–“a kind of a hippie thing from one of the shops on Telegraph Avenue,” he says…The debugging went especially well that night, and the outfit became a good-luck charm–Simonyi’s “debugging suit.”

On Simonyi’s work on intentional software (then called intentional programming, or IP):

Simonyi said IP had “achieved complete self-sufficiency”: that is, “all future work on IP would be done using IP itself.” He rewarded his team with T-shirts emblazoned with one of his favorite pictures from childhood: the image of Baron Munchausen lifting himself and his horse out of a bog by tugging at his own hair.

Fun writing, interesting topic, a “learning opportunity” for web folks at magazines and newspapers.

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