Monday, 7 May 2012

Noble in reason, etc

So, I'm the middle of exams for the first time since 1997.  They issue us with calculators in the exams, just in case a topic comes up with logs in it or something.  But I don't think I've used a calculator since 1994, when I had a nice graphing one for my Maths A-levels.  (These days I do all my sums in Excel, which is a good deal more civilised.)

Probably everyone ought to have to do exams from time to time just to remember how hideous they are and bad for mental balance.  I'd forgotten quite how crazy they make one.  I'm a good deal more wise and have a better sense of perspective than last time I took them, and although this is nice for me as a person, I don't think it's going to affect my results positively.  I seem to have lost all academic competitiveness and just want to pass -- but my failing one or more module is a very real prospect.  It'll be annoying if I do.

It's good for me to be forced to go back through this stuff under pressure, because parts of it are tremendously cool really.  And I like the general attitude of Computing Science.  Our slides are full of sentences like this: "Writing device drivers can be fun but must be taken very seriously", written by lecturers clearly worried that if not checked we'll be out there writing frivolous device drivers with the innate carelessness of youth.

And basically I can't think of a bigger human achievement than the computer.  Our exam tomorrow is a very tough one which takes us from the absolute basics up to the operating system level.  It's amazing that within the last sixty years or so people have taken two very simple concepts -- the difference between 1 and 0, and the everlasting loop -- and built on them to make such incredibly complex machines.  Cities are very impressive things, and so are buildings, and industries, but I don't think there's any way that humanity can compete with the mind-bendingly massive stretches of space except in the mind-bendingly huge number of tiny logic gates constantly flicking between 1 and 0 as huge amounts of data stream through them every time I type a simple letter a.  When I post this, and someone views it elsewhere, the protocols and formats that will be casually invoked and discarded, the codings and decodings, the transmutation of pulses into different forms as they travel through different media, are so complex and abundant -- and all just to do this trivial thing, to put some throwaway thoughts I had onto a screen.  It's very disconcerting, in a good way.  (Though this may be just the exam craziness talking.)


  1. I've got exams too, in a couple of weeks. Not fun at all, and bearing very little relation to real life. Good luck with yours!

  2. Thanks, I'm going to need luck tomorrow in particular for Computer Systems Architecture... Good luck for yours too! I hope you do better than me at getting a good balance between a sense of perspective and driving motivation. I had too much of the latter as a youth, and now I have too much of the former.