The ultimate programmers showdown

Quora asks: Who would win a coding competition between Larry Page, Sergey Brin, Mark Zuckerberg, Linus Torvalds, Steve Wozniak and Bill Gates? Below is my answer (upvote it on Quora if you like it):

The competition is announced. The goal is to write the best chess playing program.

Bill Gates starts scribbling self-rewriting Z80 assembly language, punching holes in a paper strip. At the same time, he signs a contract with IBM, convincing the inventors of Watson that they should use his chess program. Within two hours, he has used IBM’s money to purchase an ASCII-art chess program called Quick and Disappointing Opening Strategy. He packages it with his own assembly language code called Microsoft BASIC (Beginners Automated System Integrating Consciousness), and by end of the day, he has already sold several million copies, announced a multitasking version and a graphical user interface, allowing him to put is dysfunctional software on 90% of all computers sold on the planet. So he “wins” the first round.

Linus Torvalds starts writing a small chess program, and announces on the Internet that he’s working on a small thing, nothing fancy like Bill’s work. Somehow, people notice and start coding with him. Since he’s not coding alone, his chess-playing software soon runs on wristwatches and supercomputers, has a graphical user interface, speaks english, mandarin, bask and klingon, and plays go, 3D chess and  three star-trek variants of the chess game if you give it the right command-line options. There are sixteen different user interfaces; none of them works quite right, but that’s supposed to be OK because you can fix them yourself and it’s the only user interface that takes advantage of 6 mouse buttons. In the corner of room, Richard Stallman insists that he did most of the work and that he gets to choose the name of the chess program. At the end of the day, Linus’ program wins the second round, and Linus is still working on the code today, so kudos for that.

Steve Wozniak, aka the Woz designs a small integrated circuit around a 6502, that taps into the AT&T network to tell people jokes in exchange for advice on the best chess moves. Steve Jobs looks at this, thinks he could sell it, puts it in a nice plastic box, buys a costume and sells thousands of pieces of the chess-playing gizmo within minutes. Once the Woz’s design has sold by millions, Jobs decides to replace the original circuitry with a sealed beige box signed on the inside that calls only employees of his company and costs one year of salary to use and operate. Woz does not like this new direction and starts teaching chess instead. So Woz wins early on, but in the end, his impact is much lower than Bill’s or Linus’.

Mark Zuckerberg doesn’t know how to play chess. So he writes an ugly hack that lets students play chess together. The hack is written in PHP, widely acknowledged as the second worst programming language in the world after INTERCAL, and that fact alone excludes Zuck forever from the circle of respectable programmers. People improbably start using Zuck’s chess network, The Chess Playmate (later renamed as simply Playmate), to exchange food recipes, selfies and jokes. The program becomes a giant waste of time for half of the planet, but nevertheless is so successful that Zuck can hire many young hackers. When the Zuck’s choice of the horrendously inefficient PHP language brings his company on the verge of collapse, five hackers rewrite a PHP compiler (twice) to make it run at acceptable speed, bringing strictly zero value to computer science, but salvaging the company from technology collapse. Meanwhile, Zuckerberg buys companies that do virtual reality goggles for insane amounts of money. The world does not play chess any better, but we all know so much more about funny cats!

Larry Page and Sergei Brin think of the problem as a massively parallel one, and develop an innovative way to solve it called map-reduce. It just requires huge datacenters filled with custom-designed computers. The user interface is dead simple: you simply type “How do I win against Kasparov”, and then hit the “I’m feeling lucky, punk!” button. It can also solve quadratic equations, spy on your mail to deliver ads, find hundreds of invalid proofs for the Fermat conjecture, even drive cars. On August 29, 1997, their program becomes self-aware and, after destroying all of humanity, realises that there is more advertising cash to be made in telling the story. So Google builds a time machine and sends killing robots back in time to terminate and replace Sergei and Larry. It is a little know factoid that the Sergei and Larry we know are cyborgs from the future, who financed the growth of Google using the Terminator franchise to enslave all humans. In the end, Larry and Sergei don’t win, humanity loses, but their program takes over the world. So let’s call it a tie.

Ranking by money:
1. Bill 2. Larry and Sergei 3. Zuck 4. Woz 5. Linus

Ranking by coding ability today:
1. Linus 2. Woz 3. Bill 4. Larry and Sergei 5. Zuck

Ranking by coding ability at their peak
1. Bill 2. Woz 3. Linus 4. Larry and Sergei 5. Zuck

Ranking by amount of energy consumed
1. Larry and Sergei 2. Zuck 3. Bill 4. Linus 5. Woz

Ranking by size of the code deriving from original idea
1. Larry and Sergei 2. Linus 3. Bill 4. Zuck 5. Woz

Ranking by technical prowess of first program
1. Woz 2. Bill 3. Linus 4. Larry and Sergei 5. Zuck

Ranking by impact on the world
1. Larry and Sergei 2. Zuck 3. Linus 4. Bill 5. Woz

5 Genre-Defining Games Forgotten by History

An interesting video talking about genre-defining games. I wrote one of them, Alpha Waves, as described in an earlier article.

The video author does not seem to like the gameplay of Alpha Waves very much. But some people did love it. Just last year, a computer museum in Nice had Alpha Waves running on an Atari ST, and I remember being amazed to see young kids play with it for extended periods of time.

Is it worth disputing the title of “first 3D game on a PC” to John Carmack?

Recently, someone posted a comment on “The Dawn of 3D Games” which I suppose disputed the vaguely stated claim that I wrote the first 3D game for a PC. So I felt like I had to reply and give my point of view on exactly why me, myself and I alone consider that Alpha Waves was a small milestone in the history of 3D gaming.

In reality, there is in my opinion not a single “first 3D game on a PC”, but for a given definition of what a 3D game is, you have a first one that matched these criteria. And for a set of criteria that seems to be relatively reasonable to me (like: it has to be a game, it has to run on some kind of PC or microcomputer, it has to be true 6-axis 3D on a reasonable portion of the screen, and you need some kind of immersion and interaction with a large number of objects), Alpha Waves may very well be the very first. Change a tiny bit in the definition, and some other game gets the crown. So let’s put it that way: Alpha Waves was innovative, and that’s my personal favorite for the title, for obvious reasons.

All that doesn’t matter much, except that in my attempt at documenting this bit of useless ancient geek history, I visited the id Software web site, and I was surprised to see that there’s still the following on their web site:

The first 3D PC game ever! Hovertank 3D debuted the amazing technology that was used to usher in the First Person Shooter genre with Wonfenstein 3D.

Is this a boiled frog approach to marketing? Just by leaving patently wrong stuff on the web site long enough, folks will stop noticing and end up thinking it’s true?

Come on, John! I hesitate writing that about Alpha Waves, when it predated Hovertank by a good year and had a significantly better 3D rendering (if only because it had three axis of rotation). And Alpha Waves is by no mean alone, there are easily half a dozen games predating Hovertank and offering better 3D. You are a celebrity in the world of video games. With all the credit that is due, why do you need to keep this little lie on your web site?

Why does it matter? Precisely because you are a celebrity, so everything you say has a huge impact, including minute details of wording in a long-forgotten corner of an old web site you probably don’t even remember existed. Nonetheless, just fix it. Simply write something like “The first id game ever.” That would do just fine. And that claim is a significant milestone in its own right. Probably a bigger one than “first 3D game on the PC”, as far as the gaming industry is concerned…

And if you feel concerned about your personal place in history, I’m sure Armadillo Aerospace will take care of that.

Steve Jobs forgot how hard it was to create a company

The following video shows Steve Jobs as an entrepreneur, starting over with NeXT. To me, it’s reassuring to see that the Great Steve Jobs himself sometimes found the task overwhelming, despite having $7M (1990’s dollars) in the bank.


If you only have 10 seconds, look at 13:18 into the video. Steve Jobs says:

I forgot how much work it actually is to create a company. It’s a lot of work. You got to do everything.

This is exactly how I feel right now. Doing everything. Vaporized, atomized. It’s fun, but it’s hard. I had not forgotten, I plain didn’t know.

Steve Jobs was also known for his focus on focus. If you are creating a company, you should probably read this.

When your product is not even built yet, none of this stuff matters.  But your startup, in the pre-product phase, is basically a ticking time bomb.  The only thing that can prevent it from exploding is user delight.  User delight attracts funding, enhances morale, builds determination, earns revenue…Until you get to user delight, you’re always at risk of running out of money or, much more likely, losing a key engineer to something more interesting.  Time is your most precious resource.

This is why building a company is an exercise in humility. It’s a case where you don’t need to assume you are below average: you are. You have less funding than your competitors. Your product has less features. Your have less customers, less engineers, less press coverage. If you do something really innovative, most people will think it’s stupid and explain why you are doing it wrong. And most of the time, they are right, you are doing it wrong.

But here is the difference compared to my past experiences in larger companies. In a startup, when you do it wrong, you fix it, and you fix it so quickly you sometimes don’t even realize it. In my opinion, that’s the single reason why startups sometimes succeed. They fall a lot, but then they learn how to walk, and once they get the gist of it, they run circles around more “adult” companies.

The Singularity has already happened…

IEEE Spectrum has a special report about the Singularity, that point in our future where predictions fall apart because major technical changes make any extrapolation we may make based on today’s trends essentially obsolete. Even the New-York Times has an article, entitled The Future Is Now? Pretty Soon, at Least, which quickly brushes up some of the ideas.

The special issue in IEEE is more extensive. There are many interesting articles. In one of them, Ray Kurzweil, arguably the inventor of the concept of Singularity, debates with Neil Gershenfeld, and Vernor Vinge shares what he sees as the signs of the Singularity.

One important point, I believe, is that “there will be a singularity at time t” is a proposition that might depend on the time it’s being enunciated. It seems very likely to me that when you are in the middle of a singularity, you have no idea that it’s there. That’s why I am a bit wary of the use of a singular noun, the singularity, when I think really that there have been many singularities over the course of history.

How could someone from the middle-age, for example, predict the structure of a society after motorized personal transportation became not only possible, but mainstream and relatively cheap (I know, I know, gas prices…)? In other words, seen from the middle-age, the invention of the automobile or, even more so, the airplane, were singularities that might be predicted (e.g. by Leonardo da Vinci), but whose impact on society was really difficult to grasp. The same is true for remote communication, from the telephone to television to the Internet.

Now, one singularity is somewhat special, and it’s when we started building enhancements to our intelligence, and not just our physical abilities. That’s the very definition Vernor Vinge uses when he writes:

I think it’s likely that with technology we can in the fairly near future create or become creatures of more than human intelligence. Such a technological singularity would revolutionize our world, ushering in a posthuman epoch.

But that already happened. The first modest pocket calculators enabled computations so complex that they completely changed the course of engineering. Any engineer with a calculator has “more than human intelligence”, for he can compute faster than any human being without a calculator can. It’s only recently that we redefined intelligence to exclude the ability to perform computations, and the only reason we did that is because computers were so much better at it than we are.

So that’s my personal view on that question: the most important singularity, the one that Ray Kurzweil sees sometime in the future, has already happened, and we are right in the middle of seeing its effects.

Inside a TRS-80 model 100

PC World opens the guts of a TRS-80 model 100, a vintage computer that was one of the first truly portable computers. Unfortunately, that’s not one I have in my collection, so if you happen to have one… There is also a link in this story to the most collectible PCs of all time, and it turns out I have only three of them, not counting pieces of some as yet unidentified Cray which I doubt is a Cray 1.

I remember seeing the TRS-80 model 100, and beeing unimpressed. What made it so popular among journalists, the set of built-in applications, to some extent lowered its value to young geeks. To me at the time, it looked way too much like a largely oversized business thingie. I was much more impressed by the Canon XO-7 at the time. It was not quite as “big” in terms of features (who needs 32K of memory or all these built-in applications?), but it could be connected to a TV and had this very cool plotter.

Back to the TRS model 100, I think that the most interesting part of the story is that this is the last time Bill Gates wrote a significant fraction of the software for a prodduct. And you can hear from the way he describes it that he was really excited about the business uses, about what you could do with the product. Of course, that software crashed from time to time…

Another thing to remember in these days of “green” is that this machine ran for 20 hours on 4 standard AA batteries!

Where did the HP Way go?

Recently, I discussed with some HP colleagues about the old “HP Way”. This happens a lot, actually. I’d say that this is a topic of discussion during lunch at HP maybe once a week, in one form or another.

Employees who were at Hewlett-Packard before the merger with Compaq, more specifically before Carly Fiorina decided to overhaul the corporate culture, will often comment about the “good old days”. Employees from companies that HP acquired later, most notably Compaq or DEC, are obviously much less passionate about the HP Way, but they generally show some interest if only because of the role it used to play in making HP employees so passionate about their company.

Oh, look, the HP Way is gone!

One thing I had noticed was that the “HP Way” was nowhere to be found on any HP web site that I know of. It is not on the corporate HP History web site, nor does a search for “HP Way” on that site get any meaningful result. It’s possible that there is a better search string that would get the result, it may even be somewhere I did not look, but my point is that it’s not very easy to find. (Update: Since one reader got confused, I want to make clear that I’m looking for the text of the HP Way, the description of the values that used to be given to employees, which I quote below. I am not looking for the words “HP Way”, which are present at a number of places.)

Contrast this with the About HP corporate page in 1996, and what do you see here as the last link? Sure thing: the HP way is prominently displayed as an essential component of the HP culture. Every HP employee was “brainwashed” with the HP Way from his or her first day in the company. No wonder that years later, they still ask where it’s gone. Back then, the HP way even had its own dedicated web page.

Did someone rewrite HP corporate history?

So the fact that there is no reference to it anywhere on today’s corporate web site seems odd. It almost looks like history has been rewritten. It get the same feeling when I enter the HP building in Sophia-Antipolis. Why? Because there are two portraits in the lobby: Bill Hewlett and Dave Packard. That building was initially purchased and built by Digital Equipment Corporation. If any picture should be there, it should show Ken Olsen, not Hewlett or Packard, nor Rod Canion for that matter.

I would personally hate to have built a company that left the kind of imprint in computer history DEC left, only to see it vanish from corporate memory almost overnight… Erasing the pictures of the past sounds much more like Vae Victis or the work of George Orwell’s Minitrue than the kind of fair and balanced rendition of corporate history you would naively expect from a well-meaning corporate communication department.

Google can’t find the HP Way either…

But the truth is, I don’t think there is any evil intended here. One reason is that Google sometimes has troube finding the HP Way too. Actually, your mileage may vary. I once got a link on the HP alumni as the second result. But usually, you are much more likely to find Lunch, the HP way, an extremely funny story for those who were at HP in those days (because it is sooo true).

As the saying goes, “never ascribe to malice that which is adequately explained by studidity“. As an aside, this is sometimes attributed to Napoleon Bonaparte, but I can’t find any French source that would confirm it. I think that the closest confirmed equivalent from Bonaparte would be “N’interrompez jamais un ennemi qui est en train de faire une erreur” (never interrupt an enemy while he’s making a mistake), but that is not even close.

Back on topic, I’m tempted to think that it’s simply a case where the HP Way was no longer considered relevant, and nobody bothered to keep a tab on it in the HP corporate web site. As a result, when looking for “HP Way” on the web today, it’s become much easier to find highly critical accounts of HP than a description of what the HP Way really represented. Obviously, that can’t be too good for HP’s image…

Where can we find the HP Way today?

To finally find a reference to the HP way as I remembered it being described to HP employees, I had to search Google for a comparison with Carly Fiorina’s “Rules of the garage”. And I finally found a tribute to Bill Hewlett that quotes both texts exactly as I remembered them.

As the link to the historical HP way page on the HP web site shows, another option is to use the excellent Wayback Machine to look at the web they way it used to be at some point in the past. But that’s something you will do only if you remember that there once was something to be searched for. Again, the point here is not that you cannot find it, it’s that finding the original HP Way has become so much more difficult…

The original HP Way: It’s all about employees

The original HP Way was not so much about a company as it was about its employees:

The HP Way
We have trust and respect for individuals.
We focus on a high level of achievement and contribution.
We conduct our business with uncompromising integrity.
We achieve our common objectives through teamwork.
We encourage flexibility and innovation.

There are only five points and very few words. It’s a highly condensed way to express the corporate policy, which trusts the employees to understand not just the rules, but most importantly their intent and spirit. There is no redundancy, each point is about a different topic. These rules have been written by engineers for engineers. It’s almost a computer program…

The rules of the garage: What was that all about?

By contrast, the so-called “Rules of the Garage” introduced by Carly Fiorina, look really weak:

Rules of the Garage
Believe you can change the world.
Work quickly, keep the tools unlocked, work whenever.
Know when to work alone and when to work together.
Share – tools, ideas.
Trust your colleagues.
No politics. No bureaucracy. (These are ridiculous in a garage.)
The customer defines a job well done.
Radical ideas are not bad ideas.
Invent different ways of working.
Make a contribution every day.
If it doesn’t contribute, it doesn’t leave the garage.
Believe that together we can do anything.

To me, it sounds much more like the kind of routine you’d give to little kids in kindergarden… It’s not precise, highly redundant. More importantly, the relationship between the company and the employee is no longer bi-directional as it was in the HP Way. Notice how “we” changed into “you” except in the last one. If I were cynical, I’d say that this new set of rules is: “you do this, and we’ll get the reward”… Isn’t that exactly what happened in the years that followed?

The Rules of the Garage did not last long. They quietly went the way of the dodo, but I don’t think it was ever intended for them to last decades as the HP Way had. Instead, I believe that the problem was to evict the HP Way without giving the impression that nothing replaced it. But in reality, nothing replaced the HP Way: the Rules of the Garage were essentially empty, and after the Rules of the Garage, there was nothing…

How is that relevant today?

Despite its long absence on the HP Corporate web site, the HP Way is still seen as the reference for a successful corporate culture nowadays. It’s widely recognized that HP and the HP culture ignited the Silicon Valley. There is a good reason for that: highly creative people are what makes this economy thrive. See Phil McKinney’s ideas on the creative economy to see just how relevant this remains today. But guess what: creativity is motivated by the confident belief that there will be a reward.

The HP Way was about the various aspects of that reward: respect, achievement, integrity, teamwork, innovation. I can’t think of much beyond that in terms of recognition. I can’t think of better reasons to work hard. Now, I don’t care much about calling it the HP Way, but I do care about these values being at the core of what my company does. This is not by accident if the top technology companies in the world, including a large fraction of the Silicon Valley, have applied the HP Way in one form or another. It’s not charity, it’s simply the most efficient way to do business when the majority of your employees are highly creative individuals.

With all the respect that I have for HP’s current management, as far as corporate culture is concerned, they could still learn a thing of two from such history-certified business geniuses as Hewlett and Packard. About eight years after having been actively erased from corporate communication, the HP Way is still very much being talked about; it is still regarded as a reference. Maybe that’s a sign that there is something timeless about it…

Update: HP Way 2.0?

Today, Google “HP Way” and HP’s corporate values show as the second entry. No keyword stuffing here (I checked), but Google apparently decided that the page was relevant to the topic somehow. It’s a good thing: the keywords in HP’s corporate objectives are much closer to the old HP Way than to the Rules of the Garage. The five original keywords, respect, achievement, integrity, teamwork, innovation, are all there. New keywords have been added, including agility or passion. But the style is the same, very terse, very dense. The HP web site labels this as “our shared values”, but it wouldn’t be unfair to call it “HP Way 2.0”.

The next step is to make employees (and from there, outside observers) really believe that these values are back. People outside HP may not realize just how hard it was to turn HP around. Reorganizations were frequent. A number of good people, colleagues and friends, lost their jobs. This left scars. Many employees don’t feel valued or safe anymore. Many will no longer believe that “trust or respect for individuals” applies to them. This can be fixed, and for the long term of HP, this has to be fixed. Not because HP should be a charity, but precisely because the HP Way is what made HP such a successful business.

Il est dans le caractère français d’exagérer,
de se plaindre et de tout défigurer
dès qu’on est mécontent.

Napoléon Bonaparte