New: Book Report: The Man Behind the Microchip

Lea W. is in town, visiting from Cincinnati. Several folks gathered at Yancy's Saloon on Irving to kick it with Lea. Michael asked the question: "What do you love to do? There are a bunch of things that you like to do, but what do you love to do? What do you look forward to all the time?" Michael used to love basketball, until his back got messed up; now he loves travel. Eiko likes to run on trails, then eat protein-rich meals while talking with friends. I said that I loved to play puzzle hunts; then when someone said that she loved to sail, I thought that I wanted to change my answer to sailing; then I wanted to change my answer to travel. But I don't think any of those things are it. I left the party early. I was sleepy. I am sleepy. But still I'm thinking. I was thinking on the way home. I was thinking: I don't love any of those things, but I love writing about them afterwards. But that wasn't quite right. And then I thought, I love doing things with family and friends. But that's not quite right either--I love traveling, love writing about traveling, but that's often alone.

I think it's this: I love looking forward to having a story to tell. I love to do fun things with family friends because then we can reminisce about them later. I love to do things I can write about, because that means that there's a story in there, and I can tell that story to people and they'll like it. It's too bad that most things in life don't result in stories. Or maybe they do. I was just reading a biography of a Silicon Valley pioneer. It wasn't much like my life, but it wasn't so far different. Anyhow, this book, The Man Behind the Microchip was pretty interesting.

I've worked at start-ups. I felt like a pioneer, doing something new. But I shouldn't have. Start-ups are old news. This biography of Robert Noyce, an electronic engineer from the early days of semiconductors and microcontrollers, is full of start-up stories. They brought back memories, some of them painful. I thought I was breaking new ground, but this was all well-trodden.

But why talk about the personal stuff? There's plenty of other echoes here. Or rather, this book points out that present-day events are echoes of the past. It was big news when Google recruited people by posting puzzles on billboards and in magazine ads. But here's a little snippet about Shockley Semiconductor:

Vic Grinich, tall and thin with curly hair he wore longer than the fashionable buzz cuts, responded to a want ad that Shockley had written in code an published in a scientific journal to screen out insufficiently intelligent applicants.

Nowadays, electricity is a big factor when planning a computer service that's going to scale. You don't want to plan on building machines that you can't afford to power up. Apparently, this is a revival of a 70s concept, back when OPEC was standing firm on an oil embargo.

The prospect of rolling blackouts alarmed Noyce, who readily admitted that the semiconductor industry had designed its processes and equipment "assuming that petrochemicals were free and available and that power was free and available." The average wafer fab used 30 times as much electricity as a commercial office building of the same size, and consumed large quantities of xylene, acetone, and disopropyl alchohol, all petrochemical derivatives.

Nothing new under the sun; we stumble in the footprints of giants.

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Posted 2006-09-22