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Not Just for the GEEKS!
Sep 29, 2003 06:46 PM 1700 Views
(Updated Sep 29, 2003 06:47 PM)



''I glance at the headlines just to kind of get a flavor for what's moving. I rarely read the stories, and get briefed by people who are probably read the news themselves.''

--George W. Bush, Washington, D.C., Sept. 21, 2003

Reading a techie novel is something which doesn’t really inspire me (after all why would I read something which I do for a living?!). However not counting that, with 3 more techie novels which I have to finish (since I have bought them), and also with a hope that some combination of keys which I am typing doesn’t cause the notorious Office XP to hang and crash, I proceed therefore to review, which is actually, well, about a BUG. Now, for hopeful environmentalists here or some bug expert, first and foremost, this is a book about a BUG as in the world of computers; sorry to disappoint you, but this BUG lives in the machine world, and unlike objects of curiosity of its lively counterparts, the BUGS in machine world excel at making you gape with horror, shock, amazement, irritation, anger, loath, hatred, and have you tear your hair apart for its sheer capacity to tease you when you expect it the least.

What’s worse than finding a bug in a program? Catch the next computer programmer beside you and ask.

Ellen Ullman herself has been a programmer for around 20 years, and now a days writes for various magazines and has a fan following. So when she decided to write a fiction novel set in the techie world, eyebrows were raised as to how would she come up with something that was easily accessible to readers in all domains, and still avoid the smirk of the geeks. While she succeeds at both, her intrinsic sense of programmer gets the better of her at many places, there by making geeks happier than others. However that should not deter people from other fields to try out the books, however the audience acceptance will definitely be amongst computer literate, and of course anyone familiar with C and the ubiquitous monster UNIX (which perhaps is the best thing the machines could have ever asked for).


A BUG can be anything in your program – a simple pointer going haywire, your memory allocation going berserk, or even a simple loop which instead of terminating after 10 iterations, decides it doesn’t want to. Of course bugs are caught sooner or later, with ‘later’ being an infinite concept of time; Its the harrowing time between finding the cause of the bug that makes life miserable. Like any other BUG, once found, it usually is a ridiculous piece of code which just happened to be there.

While it’s a simple one line story, I am sure the geeks here appreciate the horror of the predicament.

There is a bug in the system which causes the application to crash at random times due to random input responses.

The book well, is about finding that elusive bug and correcting it. Simpler said than done eh?


One of the toughest things you can encounter with random BUGS is the reproduction. If you cannot reproduce an error, or more appropriately, the BUG itself, then you don’t know where to start. If you cannot see the ‘effect’ of the BUG again and again, chances are you will never the ‘cause’ too

The BUG deeply explores an era set in time when Graphical User Interfaces were becoming famous – a story set back in the programming world of mid 1980s when the root ruled (pun intended). The backdrop of the company, programming an interface for their latest database is going through all the typical chaos of a company trying to get a product to market. A typical scene of a techie company is superbly narrated - a bunch of programmers coding a application, sending over their modules to testers, who then will return with BUGS, and programmers correcting the BUG until an acceptable level of tolerance is reached and the software is released in the market, with BUGS un-discovered or intentionally, for some newer person to find it and report it back. (In a lighter vein, I wonder if Windows XP development team ever had a testing team!)

Reverting back to book again, a BUG which surfaces out of nowhere, creates havoc amongst the life of the tester and a programmer respectively. A superb narration of a (rather cliché American) life of the programmer makes for compulsive reading - the trials, the hopelessness, the frustrations of not finding out the BUG and correcting and it and overall mental tiredness of trying to catch something beyond your control, all the emotions are superbly captured by a one time programmer herself, giving it more scope and understandability – I guess it take a programmer to feel a programmer.


Sometimes BUGS may require as simple a step as declaring your variables from one data type to another. At times a simple change which took care of one BUG, doesn’t necessarily mean you wont face another BUG caused by the effect of the change. In real world systems, there is no such thing as a perfect software system – even mission critical software have bugs, and as the author brilliantly points towards the end – its there, waiting, lurking behind the doors, may be weeks, may be years, to strike at that opportune moment when it shouldn’t and create havoc. If you are lucky you will never see it.

The explanation right from the first page is pretty technical with oodles of UNIX and C programming thrown in – that an attempt is also made to make the novice reader understand the happenings is an appreciable effort by the author. While taking a parallel to the BUG, the author also vividly paints out images of techie world to the readers – the constant head-banging deadlines, the eagerness to release half finished products, the layoffs, venture capitalists, role changes, almost every aspect of a techie company is brought about as an undertone in the book, making it immensely enjoyable. She also perfectly captures the feelings of a human when dealing with a BUG and the art of debugging the BUG. Probably as a mistake or may be an intentional trick, the author leaves a BUG in the BUG for the readers to grasp. I admit I had to see again to find that BUG!


Once a bug has been dealt with, you cannot clasp your hands with wonder. For you never know what you may face next. Sometimes you can predict what will occur, a newer bug may awake, where that bug will occur and so on, however its what you cannot predict you should be scared of. A software without bugs is a BUG itself, and probably useless – that’s a fundamental nature of software, in a lighter vein that is!

In short, let me just state that the book has been a very enjoyable read for me, and even if you are not a geek, you should read this for pure thrilling narrative. On the only flip side of the novel is the language which goes from first person to third, from past to present and future in an eccentric manner. But that is probably just about it. On the whole, the BUG is a very a good read, and if you are from the geek world, then this is one book you must read!

Ps: I have and clearly avoided mentioning any part of the philosophical jingo in the book – its eminently enjoyable and very true to today’s world which is ruled by computers and not humans.

''We had a chance to visit with Teresa Nelson who's a parent, and a mom or a dad.''

-- George W. Bush, Jacksonville, Florida, Sept. 9, 2003

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Bug, The - Ellen Ullman