Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Geek Sublime

Geek Sublime
Vikram Chandra
2.5 / 5

Published 2014

First Sentence
"Even if you're the kind of person who tells new acquaintances at dinner parties that you hate e-mail and e-books, you probably recognize the words above as being some kind of computer code."
Publisher's Description:
The nonfiction debut from the author of the international bestseller Sacred Games about the surprising overlap between writing and computer coding

Vikram Chandra has been a computer programmer for almost as long as he has been a novelist. In this extraordinary new book, his first work of nonfiction, he searches for the connections between the worlds of art and technology. Coders are obsessed with elegance and style, just as writers are, but do the words mean the same thing to both? Can we ascribe beauty to the craft of writing code?

Exploring such varied topics as logic gates and literary modernism, the machismo of tech geeks, the omnipresence of an “Indian Mafia” in Silicon Valley, and the writings of the eleventh-century Kashmiri thinker Abhinavagupta, Geek Sublime is both an idiosyncratic history of coding and a fascinating meditation on the writer’s art. Part literary essay, part technology story, and part memoir, it is an engrossing, original, and heady book of sweeping ideas.

Dear Reader,

I suppose I should have read the subtitle ("The Beauty of Code, the Code of Beauty") more closely. I'll be the first to admit (as ashamed as I am) that I skimmed several chapters in this book. I never do that! But my eyes just glazed over every time Chandra got into a deep discussion of Indian religions and beliefs and, well, anything that involved a ton of Indian terminology. I just couldn't follow along! I wanted to, and I really tried to. But all the talk of gods and goddesses just didn't interest me. I couldn't see how it associated with the "code" part of the book, until I realized it wasn't supposed to, but was rather supposed to address the "code of beauty" part. I wish that were something I were more interested in; I think this book must have had a lot to say, and made some beautiful points along the way (I was especially impressed by how coded of a language Sanskrit is!). But, unfortunately, I just couldn't get into it. As another reader pointed out, Chandra assumes you have the ability to remember every italicized Indian term he uses, and then sprinkles them liberally through his paragraphs. If I were able to grasp one concept in a chapter (even that a rarity), the author had already moved on through 20 others. It was frustrating, and difficult, and I admit that for my pleasure reading, I just didn't want to make the gargantuan effort required of me.

However, I did really enjoy the other parts of this book, those that covered the computer programming side of things. Perhaps because that is my wheelhouse, I had no trouble following along with those chapters! (But I suspect his explanation of logic would appeal to non-programmers, too.) I particularly enjoyed Chandra's discussion of the similar problems that both women and Indians face when attempting to work within the largely male and American software field. He really understood the kinds of things that make women like me, who really LOVE code and who wanted to have a career in it, leave for other careers. It doesn't work that way with everyone; I know there are plenty of women who have "made it," and I am both highly respectful and jealous of their ability to manage (perhaps compartmentalize?) the environment. (I'm not talking about the jobs I've had in software, just the feeling of inadequacy that "alpha geeking" can bring out.) I was also fascinated by the idea that women who are raised in a culture that rewards hard work (India) are much more likely to succeed in their culture's software development firms; I certainly can understand the feeling of "oh, it doesn't come naturally to me, I shouldn't really try then" that the American culture has imbued in everyone - for a nation that is built on the ideals of Horatio Alger, you'd think we'd have a bit more faith in those who apply themselves, who work hard. But I feel that many get turned away from Computer Science because it doesn't just make sense. Those to whom it does, they have an easier time alpha-geeking in our geeky culture, I think.

Anyway! So I did really love the chapters on the beauty of logic and the brief history of computing (which pointed out how programming the computer was "women's work" until hardware changed and could integrate things more smoothly; when the job became prestigious, it was back to the man's domain!). And I even enjoyed the author's discussions about his writing. Being passionate about both writing and computers, I figured I would really enjoy this book. Unfortunately, as far as pleasure reading went, it wasn't quite my speed. Chandra is brilliant, but he is beyond my scope of understanding.


Geek Sublime

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