Computer Scientist, Dennis Ritchie died this week. There was nary a mention of it anywhere in the major media, except perhaps below the fold on A6. But he was a hero to me for many reasons—his influence on my musicianship not being the least. I grieve. And I hope in vain to convince you, gentle reader, who would rather read about the guy in the black turtleneck, that Dennis was one of the more important guys of the twentieth century and worthy of becoming part of your dinner conversation.
The Requisite Preliminary Adulation
A hundred years from now, when devices with a certain fruity logo are as forgotten as ‘Pullman Cars’ are forgotten today, the fruits of Dennis‘ work will still be running the world; as it does now.
I originally went to school to study physics, simply because I got a scholarship to study physics. Back then, if you did physics, you learned to program computers in order to do the work. And for science geeks, ‘programming a computer’ meant writing programs in the ‘C’ programming language to run on a Unix computer. Both developed by Dennis Ritchie around 1970.
And the reason that matters is that every operating system today is, to one degree or another, based on Unix. Every operating system in common use is written in the ‘C’ language. Every major application you use is written in ‘C’. The web runs on Unix—I mean the entire web. Your smart phone software was written in ‘C’. Your TV. Your car. That MRI machine at the hospital. Starting to get the picture? Your life, nay your world runs on computer code Dennis Ritchie created as a work for hire in the employee of Bell Labs (AT&T). No Dennis. No Steve. No Bill. No nothing. Dennis created a set of tools as important for the building of our world as the steam engine was for the nineteenth century.
But that’s not why I’m writing. 😀
The Little Blue Book
Ironically, I’m writing about Dennis Ritchie because after created the tools, his people thought it would be a good idea to write a primer. So he and Brian Kernighan wrote this little book called ‘The C Programming Language.’ And that book has had the most profound effect on my creative thinking. Allow me to explain the irony.
The C Programming Language is one of the coolest books ever written. As the title suggest, it’s a short (less than 100 pages) ‘manual’ written shortly after the development of the language, to teach programmers how to use it. When I first opened it back in 1975, I had never encountered anything like it.
In the introduction, in a self-conscious stroke of marketing genius, he states that a primary goal in the style and structure of the book was to mirror the benefits of the language itself: compactness; clarity; flexibility. In short, he tells you up front that he is trying to write an elegant book in order to sell you that it’s an elegant language. Wow.
Now think about that? There are great products with crappy manuals. There are crappy products with great manuals. No wait, screw that analogy. Try again: there are books on playing games. How many such books are so awe-inspiring that they make you want to not only buy the game, but… no that sucks too, because if you bought the book it was because you already thought the game was boss. OK, I think I got it: how many books have you read that, by their writing style, convince you that a product is worth devoting your life too?
And about that writing style? Again, it’s concise, but not dry. Brief but never lacking. Evocative but not showy. It’s like Ernest Hemingway decided to write a programming language. After reading this book, I started thinking about everything in terms of organisation. How to get to the point. How to not leave loose ends. I started seeing everything in terms of architecture: Mozart, Beethoven. How are big pieces put together. People talk a lot about the relationship between mathematics and music, but I never would’ve made the same connections from math or computers in the abstract. The way ‘The C Programming Language’ was written, was an insight into a way of creative thinking. He was teaching a way of thinking, because his ‘style’ merely reflected the clarity of his art as a designer. The writing is like one of Beethoven’s late string quartets. It presents very complex material in the most clear method possible. Like chess, it shows you simultaneously the simplicity of the game and also limitless possibilities. Or maybe it’s like a fighter as opposed to a bodybuilder. The bodybuilder displays their strength, the fighter puts it into action—you only notice it because it’s a prerequisite. He doesn’t flaunt it. The absence of ‘flaunt’ in the book only makes the language he describes look more powerful.
Music is the same: for example, great solos are not the ones that scream ‘look at my playing!’ That is not to say all the great solos lack virtuosity. They don’t. They just sublimate the notes to the message. That’s what I learned from the little blue book. You show off your art a lot more by not showing off how it’s made.
Author’s Note: There are exceptions. Musicians like George Van Eps and Jimmy Haslip play with so much understatement they never attracted the attention they rightly deserved. A little gratuitous sex and violence once in a while might’ve gotten their other art a lot more visibility. But I digress…
Praise Him With Great Praise
I am not sorry that Dennis was not a media star. He was a scientist and that’s how it should be. But I feel a certain sadness that greatness goes unrecognised because it speaks poorly of our society when the ‘visionaries’ get so much of the press and the great builders so little. Apparently he died alone and was not found for a few days. If true, that right there makes my blood boil. But more than anything, his work was one of those things which should be taught to all students as a matter of sheer cultural survival.
In China and India, they erect billboards not so much to film stars and politicians, but also to great engineers and scientists. If ever a guy deserved a public monument for achievement… especially these days when we desperately seem to need to feel a bit better about America. Get that man a statue.
There isn’t a bar of music I put down on paper without seeing that white little cover with the big blue ‘C’ in the back of my mind. No metaphor. And that’s the irony. Every day I recognise how utterly I fail to live up to the standards of the little blue book. I fail to organise properly. I don’t prepare the audience. Or transition. Or develop. I elaborate needlessly. I repeat unnecessarily. I say way too much. And that’s just on this blog! 😀
If I could have one wish granted to me as a musician before I die? It would be to create one piece of music as well-designed as that little book. Seriously.
Does this undo thirty years of anti-geekdom? Tough. You da man, Dennis.