“You Are Not Expected to Understand This”

When starting my professional career in IT, I got close to the holy grale of the UNIX source code, well known for the most striking comment in IT history.

“You Are Not Expected to Understand This”.

Few of us give much thought to computer code or how it comes to be. The very word “code” makes it sound immutable or even inevitable. “You Are Not Expected to Understand This demonstrates that, far from being preordained, computer code is the result of very human decisions, ones we all live with when we use social media, take photos, drive our cars, and engage in a host of other activities.

Everything from law enforcement to space exploration relies on code written by people who, at the time, made choices and assumptions that would have long-lasting, profound implications for society. Torie Bosch brings together many of today’s leading technology experts to provide new perspectives on the codes that shape our lives. Contributors discuss a host of topics, such as how university databases were programmed long ago to accept only two genders, what the person who programmed the very first pop-up ad was thinking at the time, the first computer worm, the Bitcoin white paper, and perhaps the most famous seven words in Unix history: “You are not expected to understand this.”

This compelling book tells the human stories behind programming, enabling those of us who don’t think much about code to recognize its importance, and those who work with it every day to better understand the long-term effects of the decisions they make.

The book tells 26 stories of “How 26 Lines of Code Changed the World” and “You need the willingness to fail all the time.”

Introduction – Ellen Ullman
1 The First Line of Code – Elena Botella
(Basile Bouchon the French weaver from XVIII century)
2 Monte Carlo Algorithms: Random Numbers in Computing from the H-Bomb to Today – Benjamin Pope
(ENIAC took 20 seconds to confirm to American scientists, that a hydrogen bomb was possible)
3 Jean Sammet and the Code That Runs the World – Claire L. Evans
(Jean Sammet and FORMAC)
4 Spacewar: Collaborative Coding and the Rise of Gaming Culture – Arthur Daemmrich (coding the space battle simulator Spacewar in 1961)
5 BASIC and the Illusion of Coding Empowerment – Joy Lisi Rankin
(Leaving punch-cards and batch behind)
6 The First Email: The Code That Connected Us Online – Margaret O’Mara
(“A new command should be written to allow a user to send a private message to another user which may be delivered at the receiver’s convenience.”)
7 The Police Beat Algorithm: The Code That Launched Computational Policing and Modern Racial Profiling – Charlton McIlwain
(PBA, a software system to help police departments collect crime data and determine where to focus crime-fighting efforts)
8 “Apollo 11, Do Bailout” – Ellen R. Stofan and Nick Partridge
(The code 1202 flashed on a tiny display— and neither the astronauts nor flight controllers knew what it meant.)
9 The Most Famous Comment in Unix History: “You Are Not Expected to Understand This” – David Cassel
(It all started in 1975, with a routine chunk of code for the sixth edition of the Unix operating system, addressing something basic about how software gets run.)
10 The Accidental Felon – Katie Hafner
(Complex systems break in complex ways. – a harmless hack just to prove that it could be done: the program was supposed to copy itself from computer to computer and simply take up residence in as many machines as possible, hiding in the background to escape detection by computer users.)
11 Internet Relay Chat: From Fish-Slap to LOL – Susan C. Herring
(Even if you’ve never heard of it, you probably use language in your online communication that originated in IRC (Internet Relay Chat). This includes that prototypical example of modern netspeak, LOL(“laugh out loud”).)
12 Hyperlink: The Idea That Led to Another, and Another, and Another – Brian McCullough
(Almost from the very beginning of computer science, you could split the field essentially in half: computers thinking for them-selves (computation/calculation and artificial intelligence) and computers helping organize human thought. The hyperlink comes very much from this second core idea in computer science.)
13 JPEG: The Unsung Hero in the Digital Revolution – Hany Farid
(The JPEG image format is the standard compression scheme for digital cameras. Compression schemes allow for the trade- off between image file size and image quality. The ubiquitous JPEG standard was established in 1992 based on a compression scheme proposed in 1972, which was itself based on basic mathematics dating back to 1882.)
14 The Viral Internet Image You’ve Never Seen – Lily Hay Newman
(It’s likely that the most downloaded image ever is the “1 × 1 pixel”. In fact, you’ve never seen it, even though your browser probably requests it from servers every day. That’s because it’s not a famous photo or illustration— it’s a single transparent pixel that’s used by all sorts of entities to silently gather data about you and your web activity.)
15 The Pop-Up Ad: The Code That Made the Internet Worse – Ethan Zuckerman
(Sometime around 1997, I wrote a line of JavaScript code that made the world a measurably worse place. This line of code was inserted into the top of every personal home page we served at Tripod.com, one of the pioneers of “user-generated content,” the not-especially- radical idea that the Web would be built by ordinary users, not by professional media companies.)
16 Wear This Code, Go to Jail – James Grimmelmann
(WARNING: “This shirt is classified as a munition and may not be exported from the United States, or shown to a foreign national” – This was the stark warning printed in high-impact white-on-black type on the front of the “RSA T-shirt.”)
17 Needles in the World’s Biggest Haystack: The Algorithm That Ranked the Internet – John MacCormick
(The “random surfer” model of Internet browsing also lies at the heart of one of the most revolutionary pieces of code to impact the Internet age: Google’s PageRank algorithm)
18 A Failure to Interoperate: The Lost Mars Climate Orbiter – Charles Duan
(The Mars Climate Orbiter was falling fast. In the weeks that followed, NASA and its coordinate engineering teams at JPL and Lockheed Martin Aeronautics scrambled to explain the loss of the $145 million spacecraft. The disaster would have been averted but for a software bug: a missing line of code that should have multiplied a number by 4.45.)
19 The Code That Launched a Million Cat Videos – Lowen Liu
(Roomba second transformative moment for the company was the rapid proliferation of cat videos on a new video- sharing platform that launched at the end of 2005. A very specific kind of cat video: felines pawing suspiciously at Roombas, leaping nervously out of Roombas’ paths, and, of course, riding on them. So many cats, riding on so many Roombas. It was the best kind of advertising a company could ask for: it not only popularized the company’s product but made it charming.)
20 Nakamoto’s Prophecy: Bitcoin and the Revolution in Trust – Quinn DuPont
(Late 2008, Nakamoto published the now-famous “Bitcoin: A Peer- to- Peer Electronic Cash System” white paper that laid out the design for a novel cryptocurrency. By then, the global economic crisis was in full swing. When the first bitcoins were “minted” in January 2009, Nakamoto made the system’s political mission crystal clear: indelibly encoded in the so-called Genesis block of transactions, Nakamoto typed out a London newspaper’s headline, “The Times 03/Jan/2009 Chancellor on brink of second bailout for banks.”)
21 The Curse of the Awesome Button – Will Oremus
(2007, Facebook was three years old and growing at a heady pace. Originally for college students, it had opened to the public the previous fall. Now it had 30 million users. What it didn’t have was a simple way for them to show interest in each other’s posts. The only way to acknowledge a post was to comment on it. Leah Pearlman, one of Facebook’s three product managers at the time, found that inefficient. Popular posts would receive long strings of comments, many just one or two words (such as “awesome” or “congrats”)
22 The Bug No One Was Responsible For—Until Everyone Was – Josephine Wolff
(2014, April 7, Amazon – Heartbleed, the bug quickly became headline news as software engineers like MacCárthaigh scrambled to patch their products and services before attackers could take advantage of the vulnerability to steal sensitive information like website credentials or credit card numbers.)
23 The Volkswagen Emissions Scandal: How Digital Systems Can Be Used to Cheat – Lee Vinsel
(Word came down in September 2015: the prestigious German automaker Volkswagen had misled regulators and the public at large by using computer software to cheat air pollution tests. Researchers from West Virginia University found that one Volkswagen was spewing between 15 and 35 times the legal limit of nitrogen oxide, which can cause asthma, cancer, and heart attacks.)
24 The Code That Brought a Language Online – Syeda Gulshan Ferdous Jana
(August 17, 2005, was a day of terror in Bangladesh— and would also be pivotal toward bringing Bangla, the language of Bangladesh, online. It was a normal, busy office day in Dhaka, the capital, when one of the employees at my company received a call from his wife, saying that a small bomb had exploded in their neighborhood. Minutes later, another employee received a call about an explosion near his home, elsewhere in Dhaka. Chilling rumors started spreading about terror attacks by Isla-mist militants all over Bangladesh. In fact, a small extremist group had exploded 500 bombs in nearly all of Bangladesh’s 64 districts simultaneously. Word spread through mobile phones and one- to-one conversations; there was a technical problem. At the time, there was no way for most people to write in Bangla online. Bringing Bangla— the language of the liberal, Muslim-dominated country Bangladesh and the world’s sixth largest language—online helped create a unique and vibrant blogosphere that allowed people to access information.
25 Telegram: The Platform That Became “the Internet” in Iran – Mahsa Alimardani and Afsaneh Rigot
(Telegram was launched in 2013. At the heart of Telegram in Iran is a story of Iranian ingenuity, as users found ways to resist the confines of authoritarian controls.)
26 Encoding Gender – Meredith Broussard
(Jonathan Ferguson, a 40-year-old technical writer at the Ministry of Supply in London, made UK headlines in 1958 when he formally announced his gender transition. “His birth registration has been amended from ‘female’ to ‘male’ and his new Christian name inserted into the register.” The Census Bureau started running the first commercially produced digital computer, UNIVAC. Back then, gender was generally considered fixed. If you filled out a paper form, it asked for your name and offered you two choices for gender: male or female. You could pick one.)

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