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Ellen Ullman appears Tuesday (June 10) at 7:30pm at Barnes & Noble, 5353 Almaden Expwy.,San Jose. (408.979.0611)

Go With the Flaw

Ellen Ullman's new Silicon Valley-based novel, 'The Bug,' delves into a programmer's worst nightmare--a software glitch with a life of its own

By Michael S. Gant

Try as they might, filmmakers still don't know how to make sitting at a computer exciting. Even in breathless techno-thrillers, when the hero starts tapping on a keyboard--experimenting with passwords, querying a cia database--the action slows to the maddening click-clacking rhythm of typing fingers.

In her new novel, The Bug, Bay Area novelist Ellen Ullman has solved that dramatic problem. Her hero's desperate search for a devilish bug lurking inside the user interface of an early database moves along with the alacrity of a good forensics workout. Tantalizing clues are followed by false leads, and the crime scene is a computer screen turned into "a mess of lines, boxes, strange characters."

At times, the bug--known officially at UI-1017 and nicknamed "The Jester" for its habit of appearing at the worst possible times, such as when a gaggle of venture capitalists show up for crucial demonstration--seems to be tormenting its creators, like a serial killer daring the police to find him.

Like the best detective-story writers, Ullman has constructed a compelling plot with enough tensile strength to support insights about the emotional struggles of her characters. And in what should appeal to local readers, she's added a rich accumulation of Silicon Valley workplace details and a layering of philosophical speculations about the human-machine interface that is starting to dominate our lives. Slowly, insistently, the flaw that haunts the software becomes inextricably connected to the flaws in our own natures, the flaws that eat away at our relationships, even at our sanity.

These flaws mercilessly torment the novel's senior programmer, Ethan Levin, confounding his ability to manipulate and understand the code he has written. Consumed with the programmer's belief in logic, Levin spends his spare moments working on the Game of Life, a computer simulation that grants him God-like powers over a grid of X-creatures and O-creatures. In the end, Levin becomes a bug himself, as helpless to extricate himself from his nightmare as that most famous of fictional insects, Gregor Samsa in Kafka's The Metamorphosis.

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The complete Ellen Ullman interview: More from the 'Close to the Machine' author.

The Debugger: An excerpt from Ellen Ullman's novel 'The Bug.'

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Quality of Engagement

Ullman, a longtime programmer who worked in the late-'70s and early-'80s for both well-known companies--Sybase and Sun Microsystems Inc.--and a lot of startups whose names, she confesses over the phone from New York, "escape me now," shifted to writing prose with the publication of her memoir and cult-classic, Close to the Machine.

"I had initially designed this story to be an essay," she explains. "I had thought I would write a novella-length essay about a bug I had had when I was a programmer in the mid-'80s. I sat down to write it, and it wasn't turning out very successfully. I had just written a memoir, and I just thought I was tired of talking about my own life in memoir terms. I felt there were things I wanted to explore that I couldn't do out of my own experience.

"So after many false starts, I thought what if I try this as fiction. This would give me a freer hand to rearrange events and introduce other points of view and set it more precisely--and make it more of a story."

Working in prose--especially fiction--required a transformation, a rewiring almost, of the thought processes she knew so well from programming code. "Writing code has an almost compulsive quality of engagement," she says, attempting to define the difference between creating computer language and human language.

"You write, you compile, you test. It just goes round and round in a very tight loop. You have this constant feedback of the machine. ... There's a quality of engagement that's very tight. One hopes that writing would feel that compulsively engaged, but at least for me, it was harder to enter into that deep engaged state, because you're alone with yourself, you have to stimulate yourself, you don't have a machine coming back and telling you when it works. Only you know--or you think you know--when it works. And that's a lot harder to tell."

I suggest that writing code might be a kind of addiction, but Ullman isn't ready to go quite that far. "Compulsion would be closer, not addiction," she says. "I don't know if even compulsion is the word. It just engages a different part of my brain that goes into these churning cycles, and that's very pleasurable and it just eats up time. And I just decided I could not do both."

At a fundamental level, she continues, "code isn't really designed to be expressive. Its goal is to produce something that works, that functions. The purpose of writing--especially fiction or essays--is not that it just transmits a factoid but that it, hopefully, relays a sense of experience and a sensibility. ... You want it to be expressive in a way that code simply can't."

Although the novelist's trade proved to be a lonely one, Ullman found it a relief of sorts after the pressure-cooker life inside a startup company, with its regular round of blame-assigning meetings Ullman describes with a chilling accuracy that is more Dickens than Dilbert. In one harrowing scene in The Bug, the programmers and testers sit around a conference table publicly confessing how far behind schedule they are. Finally, one Albert Herring weighs in with a shameful figure: Three and a half months.

Ullman writes: "There was now another pause as everyone in the room stared at Albert Herring. It was a gaze of fascinated, guilty terror, the look wildebeest give the one of their herd just taken down by a lion: horror, warring with relief that it was someone else who got it in the neck."

With a laugh, Ullman says of writing fiction, "Yeah, it was liberating. Software projects are very frustrating in that regard. Not only do you have trouble doing your own work well, the requirements will keep changing. Pieces of it that you are relying upon from other people may be early or late or not be what you expected. And there are always clients or customers pulling you one way--and product managers another and prospective clients another. ... It's much more compromising than people would imagine.

"It's actually more of a political process. I think that people talk about programming as if it's this logical thing--and yes, maybe at the level of individual modules or functions or objects--but as a piece of software or program or system it's a political process with lots of people having their constituencies."

Tulips and Tech

Although Ullman begins her novel in the present day, the real action takes place in 1984 at an imaginary startup called Telligentsia in Silicon Valley, in "a lake of asphalt in Fremont." That seminal year saw the release of the first Apple Mac with its famed ad aimed at Big Brother/Big Blue, IBM. It was the era when programmers were struggling to create the icon-friendly, windowed screen environments that we now take for granted.

Ullman still lives in the South of Market area once known as Multimedia Gulch. "I lived there before the boom, and I'm there after the bust. And it's a daunting feeling. While the boom was going on, it was unreal, and we all knew it. We'd sit there and look at all the buildings getting thrown down overnight, and the restaurants so packed you couldn't get in, the bars overflowing into the streets on Thursday nights. and [we'd] go, like, God, this is weird. You couldn't rent a tiny office in the most awful building, and suddenly, it's all gone. The restaurants have closed, the bars are dark or empty, there's nothing but available and for-lease signs everywhere you look. The collapse was kind of breathtaking once it actually happened. Even though you knew it was coming, it was hard to believe the rapidity with which everything just disappeared."

The good times may never come back to that degree, but Ullman does see an upside. "I do believe a kind of normal growth curve will return. but not that asymptotic climb. That was really abnormal. We haven't had something like that since--what?--the '20s? Those are pretty rare events, and gladly so. I don't think I would like to see another mania like that. It discredits whatever industry it happens to. Think of tulips. It has unfortunately discredited a lot of the value that, of course, still remains in computing technologies. It gives everything a bad taste for a while. I don't think manias are helpful, so I hope that doesn't come back."

Pixel Dust

In Ellen Ullman's world, a desire for logic and understanding runs up against the messiness of human existence; the discrete pixel-by-pixel precision of the machine confronts the human "flowing, continuous aspect of things." In the interstice dwells the bug--a nuisance that has twice crashed my computer while I write this and is a useful metaphor for the inevitable chaos that creeps into our lives no matter how much we think we have taken control.

Should we even imagine that a bug-free life is possible? "I think that we will always have bugs that will bedevil us," Ullman says. "What we think of as a computer now--at bottom, it is a calculator. It goes, if true, go here. Underneath, it's a bunch of go-tos, jump instructions. Put something in a register, check a condition, jump somewhere if it's true, jump somewhere else if it's false. It's a pretty restricted way kind of thinking.

"If we only wanted computers to do general ledgers, we could get the bugs out, but we have more and more ambitions about what we want computers to do. ... There is just so much code. Code at every level, from the chip itself to networks to operating systems--all kinds of devices inside the computer have their own code. It's just layer upon layer upon layer upon layer upon layer. Even if you shake the bugs out of one layer pretty well, once you put all these things together, there are so many possible permutations and all there interactions--for practical purposes, it's not possible to test all those conditions."

Even the novelist, who ultimately pulls the strings on her characters, who arranges them in a kind of game of life, isn't immune to bugs.

"There's a mysterious bug in my IBM Thinkpad right now," Ullman says. "It's happened three times in the year since I've had it."


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From the June 5-11, 2003 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

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