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The Pattern on the Stone: The Simple Ideas that Make Computers Work

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Most people are baffled by how computers work and assume that they will never understand them. What they don't realize—and what Daniel Hillis's short book brilliantly demonstrates—is that computers' seemingly complex operations can be broken down into a few simple parts that perform the same simple procedures over and over again. Computer wizard Hillis offers an easy-to-fol Most people are baffled by how computers work and assume that they will never understand them. What they don't realize—and what Daniel Hillis's short book brilliantly demonstrates—is that computers' seemingly complex operations can be broken down into a few simple parts that perform the same simple procedures over and over again. Computer wizard Hillis offers an easy-to-follow explanation of how data is processed that makes the operations of a computer seem as straightforward as those of a bicycle. Avoiding technobabble or discussions of advanced hardware, the lucid explanations and colorful anecdotes in The Pattern on the Stone go straight to the heart of what computers really do. Hillis proceeds from an outline of basic logic to clear descriptions of programming languages, algorithms, and memory. He then takes readers in simple steps up to the most exciting developments in computing today—quantum computing, parallel computing, neural networks, and self-organizing systems. Written clearly and succinctly by one of the world's leading computer scientists, The Pattern on the Stone is an indispensable guide to understanding the workings of that most ubiquitous and important of machines: the computer.


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Most people are baffled by how computers work and assume that they will never understand them. What they don't realize—and what Daniel Hillis's short book brilliantly demonstrates—is that computers' seemingly complex operations can be broken down into a few simple parts that perform the same simple procedures over and over again. Computer wizard Hillis offers an easy-to-fol Most people are baffled by how computers work and assume that they will never understand them. What they don't realize—and what Daniel Hillis's short book brilliantly demonstrates—is that computers' seemingly complex operations can be broken down into a few simple parts that perform the same simple procedures over and over again. Computer wizard Hillis offers an easy-to-follow explanation of how data is processed that makes the operations of a computer seem as straightforward as those of a bicycle. Avoiding technobabble or discussions of advanced hardware, the lucid explanations and colorful anecdotes in The Pattern on the Stone go straight to the heart of what computers really do. Hillis proceeds from an outline of basic logic to clear descriptions of programming languages, algorithms, and memory. He then takes readers in simple steps up to the most exciting developments in computing today—quantum computing, parallel computing, neural networks, and self-organizing systems. Written clearly and succinctly by one of the world's leading computer scientists, The Pattern on the Stone is an indispensable guide to understanding the workings of that most ubiquitous and important of machines: the computer.

30 review for The Pattern on the Stone: The Simple Ideas that Make Computers Work

  1. 4 out of 5

    Scott Johnson

    This is a weird one for me.... On the one hand, I'm not the intended audience. I understand how computers work more than most, that's literally my job to write the software that runs the internet. On the other, I AM the intended audience, because I have zero clue how computers work on a hardware level. On a mutant third hand, I'm not really the intended audience again, because I intimately understand the physics behind all of the individual components....complex impedence, inductance, breakdown vol This is a weird one for me.... On the one hand, I'm not the intended audience. I understand how computers work more than most, that's literally my job to write the software that runs the internet. On the other, I AM the intended audience, because I have zero clue how computers work on a hardware level. On a mutant third hand, I'm not really the intended audience again, because I intimately understand the physics behind all of the individual components....complex impedence, inductance, breakdown voltages, RF circuit resonances, and so on. I'm in a weird place where I write the high level software that makes computers work. I understand the theory behind programming languages, object-oriented design, system design, compilers, parallel processing and multi-threading..... I also understand the physics behind the components and why transistors are able to function as logic switches, how data is stored and read magnetically on a HDD platter or, more recently, SSD chips. What's missing is the middle bit. How does a circuit I know in and out turn into the operating system I'm modifying? I was hoping this book might answer that question. In a sense, it did, but not at a level that left me satisfied. I understand better how memory registers function and how you build blocks of switches that are hard-wired function machines. But I'm still missing the middle bit: How does what's in that data register (the machine code instruction byte(s)) end up at the correct block within the processor? How does the output get routed to the correct destination after it's computed....how does it know one result goes to the USB controller to get sent back to some peripheral device, but another gets sent to another controller to trigger a disk write to save a file? Sadly, this book didn't answer that for me. That process was hand-waved away and simplified. And so my quest to find a book to fill that gap in my knowledge continues.... That said, this book is great at what it does. I can't grade it based on my expectations, but on how good it accomplishes its intended goal. I think it achieves that pretty well, with very little in the way of distractions or unnecessary filler.

  2. 5 out of 5

    Ovidiu Neatu

    A good preview of what computer science is about. For a person who wants to join the field this may give a hint for paths you can chose from within the domain.

  3. 4 out of 5

    Mbogo J

    Daniel Hillis conceived of this book to explain the holistic view of the modern day computer, how hardware and software combine to generate the final products that we the users see. In a way he succeeded in explaining the concepts such that any person with minimal background knowledge on computers can understand. My qualms with this book are more because of me rather than the book itself. I had picked this book in the hope that it will somehow explain to me how the logic gates and their operation Daniel Hillis conceived of this book to explain the holistic view of the modern day computer, how hardware and software combine to generate the final products that we the users see. In a way he succeeded in explaining the concepts such that any person with minimal background knowledge on computers can understand. My qualms with this book are more because of me rather than the book itself. I had picked this book in the hope that it will somehow explain to me how the logic gates and their operations are scaled up to create a programmable system but the book fell short. The question was glossed over...may be it was to reduce complexity or the author did not think it was important, like I said the problem was me and I am sure the author did not write this book with me in mind. I've also read a book with a similar intent D is for Digital by Brian Kernighan which was better written and a bit systematic, not to mention more recent...Though I've labored enough on this point, for the last time the problem with this book was me rather than the book itself and the reader should check it out for themselves to determine from the content what is wheat and what is chaff.

  4. 4 out of 5

    Prashob M

    An awesome book on classic computer science from addition operation to inception of AI within 200 pages is remarkable feat and author's lucid writing style and concise content make it delightful read.

  5. 5 out of 5

    David

    I was very, very impressed by The Pattern on the Stone. Hillis explains, in terms that anyone can understand, how computers work from the most basic principals. A previous familiarity with any or all of the principals will make understanding easier, but is entirely unnecessary. There is no prerequisite to reading this book. I will be completely honest: I don't think there is any one topic in this book that I had not already explored in other reading. However, I've never seen it all described toge I was very, very impressed by The Pattern on the Stone. Hillis explains, in terms that anyone can understand, how computers work from the most basic principals. A previous familiarity with any or all of the principals will make understanding easier, but is entirely unnecessary. There is no prerequisite to reading this book. I will be completely honest: I don't think there is any one topic in this book that I had not already explored in other reading. However, I've never seen it all described together in one seamless narrative before! That's an amazing feat, especially considering the brevity of the book. Computer Science is a huge subject with applications (and implications) that reach far beyond crunching numbers. Hillis describes many mind-expanding topics, such as Turing's hypothesis of universal computing, with wonderful lucidity and clarity. The ability to put together a book like this with just the right amount of information to be clear, but no more, is rare. I'm sure the author's temptation to write much more on each topic was very strong. I honestly believe everyone should read this book. People with no previous knowledge of the computer sciences would benefit enormously. Those of us who're already familiar with some or all of the topics will still, I think, gain insight by seeing the big picture. At the very least, it will surely jog the memory quite thoroughly. Even if all of those reasons fail, it's a quick, thoughtful read. Other interesting note: I thought Daniel Hillis' name seemed familiar. I was delighted to discover he's also the creator of the "Clock of the Long Now", the 10,000 year clock, a project that has long been a fascination of mine. "Holy crap," I thought, "he's that Daniel Hillis!" Here's Hillis on the clock: I want to build a clock that ticks once a year. The century hand advances once every one hundred years, and the cuckoo comes out on the millennium. I want the cuckoo to come out every millennium for the next 10,000 years. If I hurry I should finish the clock in time to see the cuckoo come out for the first time. Awesome stuff!

  6. 5 out of 5

    Chris Aldrich

    I wish I had been made to read this as a senior in high school, or as a freshman in college. I highly recommend it to beginning electrical engineering and biomedical engineering students, as well as those interested in broad-based popular science. It provides a great overview of the fields of electrical engineering and even some biomedical engineering, pulling together many of their interdivisional ideas while covering topics like Boolean algebra/logic, feedback control systems, biology, the brai I wish I had been made to read this as a senior in high school, or as a freshman in college. I highly recommend it to beginning electrical engineering and biomedical engineering students, as well as those interested in broad-based popular science. It provides a great overview of the fields of electrical engineering and even some biomedical engineering, pulling together many of their interdivisional ideas while covering topics like Boolean algebra/logic, feedback control systems, biology, the brain, evolution, neural networks, computer science and programming, nature vs. nurture debate, cognitive psychology, imaging/image processing, signals & systems, technology, ethics, philosophy and even history. It contains an inquisitive feel that is integral to a true understanding of engineering. It also has some broad based questions that students should be made to think about and maybe eventually solve. It wonderfully ties together a lot of theory in to a coherent text that will help create better engineers (and even thinkers). How do we create questions and then go about answering them. Lots of students suffer from not knowing how all the theory and knowledge interrelate. This book helps synthesize many things into a better whole and allows the reader to see the small pieces that integrate into the big picture.

  7. 5 out of 5

    Rachel Smalter Hall

    I was super excited to dig into this book and FINALLY understand everything there is to know about computers! It promised to be written for morons like me who didn't understand the first thing about input, output, and boolean logic gates. Transistors, what? Functional abstraction??? Anyway, I think I sort-of get it now. Hillis is pretty good at transforming all that linear engineer stuff into a narrative that I can grasp and understand. Nevertheless, it's all still a little bit hazy, and the las I was super excited to dig into this book and FINALLY understand everything there is to know about computers! It promised to be written for morons like me who didn't understand the first thing about input, output, and boolean logic gates. Transistors, what? Functional abstraction??? Anyway, I think I sort-of get it now. Hillis is pretty good at transforming all that linear engineer stuff into a narrative that I can grasp and understand. Nevertheless, it's all still a little bit hazy, and the last half of the book was sort-of a bore -- the 4th grade approach to otherwise interesting topics such as algorithms, heuristics, sorting, parallel computing and artificial intelligence.

  8. 5 out of 5

    Chris Esposo

    Though dated, this is a still-relevant high-level basic tour on the architecture of digital computers. It goes through the processor, memory, disk, and how computation is executed through these and other components. One big omission of detail is anything to do with circuit topology and gate-logics. Though, a good layman book on that is "The Engineer and the Logician", parts of which are fairly technical, and thus at a slightly higher level of difficulty with respect to written detail. This book h Though dated, this is a still-relevant high-level basic tour on the architecture of digital computers. It goes through the processor, memory, disk, and how computation is executed through these and other components. One big omission of detail is anything to do with circuit topology and gate-logics. Though, a good layman book on that is "The Engineer and the Logician", parts of which are fairly technical, and thus at a slightly higher level of difficulty with respect to written detail. This book has charms of its own. Early in the text, the author uses the construction and functioning of a hydraulic tube-based analogue computer, which sort of fills in for the dearth on the topic circuitry. In effect, the author seems to be making the connection between this analogue computer as a type of "system dynamic", and uses this construct as his way of characterizing computers. This choice of narrative isn't surprising since the book was written within the decade bound by the mid-1980s to the mid-90s when Chaos theory was ascendant. The author makes reference to self-organizing systems, artificial evolution, and emergence at several points in the book, especially when discussing the notion of intelligence towards the end of the text. This book would be great for someone of any age getting into computing. Perhaps read as an ancillary text in their CS101 course, or just for pleasure by someone already in the field, but who may operate at a much higher level of abstraction (software), and want to review how instruction is carried out at a more literal level. My only critique is the author is a bit naive in his perception that intelligence may evolve from the architecture of the internet. Though, he was hardly unique in this naivete for thinkers in computing at the time. Recommend

  9. 4 out of 5

    Kenta Suzuki

    This book is good for someone who wants to understand overall concepts of CS; hardware, software, algorithms, artificial intelligence. This book scratches the surface of these subjects and this does not go into depth. This book may not be for type of person who likes to study calculus with precise limit approach (meaning that clear and rigorous definition are better than fuzzy explanation to understanding) since there are lots of abstractions and analogy of concepts in this book which some peopl This book is good for someone who wants to understand overall concepts of CS; hardware, software, algorithms, artificial intelligence. This book scratches the surface of these subjects and this does not go into depth. This book may not be for type of person who likes to study calculus with precise limit approach (meaning that clear and rigorous definition are better than fuzzy explanation to understanding) since there are lots of abstractions and analogy of concepts in this book which some people do not clear. For FYI, Alan Kay recommends this book to understand CS concepts https://www.quora.com/What-are-the-be...

  10. 5 out of 5

    Chris

    A nice short book explaining generally how computers work, from things like boolean logic, to how we build up complex architectures, to more advanced topics like parallel and evolutionary computing. I read this to see if it might be something my kids could read, or could be a general explanation for various people. I think if you're interested in computers, and want an easy to read explanation of the basics of how they work and a few other topics, it's a nice short read.

  11. 4 out of 5

    Mitch McKinnon

    This book took familiar concepts and was able to explain them in terms that were not too complex. I was a bit (pleasantly) surprised by the advanced topics that it ventured into by the end and it's fun to read his perspective as we see some of these technologies becoming realized right now. Since the book was written in 1998, the age is definitely starting to show in some of the language used.

  12. 4 out of 5

    Faiz

    This is what an intro to computer science should be.

  13. 4 out of 5

    Joni Baboci

    A fantastic brief read describing the hardware and logic of programming. If I would have read this at 14, I probably would not be an architect today. Highly recommended.

  14. 4 out of 5

    Lidia

    cool logic

  15. 4 out of 5

    Huy Vo

    This book is for people who have just got into computing or computer-related fields. After reading this book, you'll see the world as simple as an electrical switch with on and off buttons (say 1 and 0 in bits). For instance, a light can be either on or off (1 or 0). A house is either built or unbuilt. An idea could be either developed or undeveloped. You haven't thought of them as a same thing before? Well, me neither..but we'll change this. The book will give you a deeper dig into more fascinat This book is for people who have just got into computing or computer-related fields. After reading this book, you'll see the world as simple as an electrical switch with on and off buttons (say 1 and 0 in bits). For instance, a light can be either on or off (1 or 0). A house is either built or unbuilt. An idea could be either developed or undeveloped. You haven't thought of them as a same thing before? Well, me neither..but we'll change this. The book will give you a deeper dig into more fascinating things. From a fairly simple tic-tac-toe machine which is also built out of a hundred of switches (that are either on or off describing either X or O), to a complicated thing like a computer or a robot which has millions of switches (what we call transistors today). Interestingly, they all work the same. They may seemingly have a lot of differences and but it's the same PATTERN being used on every machines nowadays.

  16. 5 out of 5

    Lawrence

    I think it is a marvelous introductory book to the field of CS. It guides you to a glimpse of a number of most tempting aspects of this subject, although it is not in-depth and detailed. At least it triggered my motive to study CS for at least 4 years in the university.

  17. 5 out of 5

    Greg Talbot

    Our dependence on computers is hardly questionable. Email, social media, typing, and searching for information, it's hard to imagine going back to the old days. Hillis is a book about ideas. Ideas about what computers are, some processes they are involved with, and the future of what computers can be. Some of my favorite things from the book is how Hillis deconstructs what computers are. Using the simple functions - and, or, invent, he not only opens the doors to programming instructions and lang Our dependence on computers is hardly questionable. Email, social media, typing, and searching for information, it's hard to imagine going back to the old days. Hillis is a book about ideas. Ideas about what computers are, some processes they are involved with, and the future of what computers can be. Some of my favorite things from the book is how Hillis deconstructs what computers are. Using the simple functions - and, or, invent, he not only opens the doors to programming instructions and languages, he gives some unique examples, a hydraulic tic-tac toe game, or creating a rock-paper-scissors game via winning strategies. Quoting Gregory Bateson, information is "the difference that makes a difference". "Pattern on the Stone" won't help you build the rocket ship, but it will give an appreciate for it's design and power.

  18. 5 out of 5

    Nat

    After reading this, I think I should add a "logic gates" unit to my intro logic course, explaining the relevance of Boolean logic to the foundations of computer science. The opening sections of this book would be ideal for teaching undergrads that material. This also contains some anti-"What Computers Can't Do" disses if you're into that kind of thing.

  19. 5 out of 5

    Paul

    A very interesting book. As Hillis points out in the intro, anyone reading Pattern on the Stone will likely already be familiar with most of the concepts involved, but his simple, elegant description of the basics of computing is never less than fascinating. The bootstrapping through layers of abstraction is particularly well-described, and this book marks the first time that I actually understood what would make quantum computing so powerful. The only downside of this book is Hillis's random in A very interesting book. As Hillis points out in the intro, anyone reading Pattern on the Stone will likely already be familiar with most of the concepts involved, but his simple, elegant description of the basics of computing is never less than fascinating. The bootstrapping through layers of abstraction is particularly well-described, and this book marks the first time that I actually understood what would make quantum computing so powerful. The only downside of this book is Hillis's random interjections of AI wishful thinking nonsense; e.g., he thinks that the Internet will become . . . uh . . . a self-aware AI? Given that this book was published in 1998 I guess we can count that one out! But these moments are mercifully rare.

  20. 5 out of 5

    Nayef Ahmad

    Lucid and concise. And there's no question that the author knows his stuff: in the 1980s, he pioneered the idea of massively parallel computing, which is now ubiquitous in supercomputers. Excerpt: "Of course, I had heard of Amdahl's Law [check Wikipedia]... yet I was certain, though I could not prove it, that Amdahl's Law did not apply to the problems I was trying to solve. The reason I was so confident was that the problems I was working on had already been solved on a massively parallel proces Lucid and concise. And there's no question that the author knows his stuff: in the 1980s, he pioneered the idea of massively parallel computing, which is now ubiquitous in supercomputers. Excerpt: "Of course, I had heard of Amdahl's Law [check Wikipedia]... yet I was certain, though I could not prove it, that Amdahl's Law did not apply to the problems I was trying to solve. The reason I was so confident was that the problems I was working on had already been solved on a massively parallel processor - the human brain. I was a student at the Artificial Intelligence Lab at MIT, and I wanted to build a machine that could think."

  21. 5 out of 5

    Josh Friedlander

    This is everything that popular science writing should be, and it's the product not of a professional writer, but of an engineer who clearly loves what he does. Full of clever, non-technical analogies and explanations that make you go "Ah, OK! That's what people mean by that term!" Also helpful is a warning before a tricky section, explaining that if you get lost you'll still follow the rest of the book. Hillis, a long-time AI evangelist, says some not very nice things about philosophers of mind This is everything that popular science writing should be, and it's the product not of a professional writer, but of an engineer who clearly loves what he does. Full of clever, non-technical analogies and explanations that make you go "Ah, OK! That's what people mean by that term!" Also helpful is a warning before a tricky section, explaining that if you get lost you'll still follow the rest of the book. Hillis, a long-time AI evangelist, says some not very nice things about philosophers of mind - this book escapes its remit to follow avenues of emergent intelligence, quantum mechanics and biological models for computing. Not one boring page. Five stars.

  22. 5 out of 5

    Senthil Kumaran

    Clearly written account on what is Computer Science. This is book is not about technology, but the concepts and ideas which make the computers work. While reading the first chapter itself, I recollected the Computer Built using MineCraft (Check the video in youtube if you did not know already) because it details about Computers built using sticks. It goes on to explain about Finite state machines, computer architecture, Programming languages and storage, error detecting and error correcting code Clearly written account on what is Computer Science. This is book is not about technology, but the concepts and ideas which make the computers work. While reading the first chapter itself, I recollected the Computer Built using MineCraft (Check the video in youtube if you did not know already) because it details about Computers built using sticks. It goes on to explain about Finite state machines, computer architecture, Programming languages and storage, error detecting and error correcting codes, parallelism and our path to future. Author tries to help the readers realize their kinship with computers. Draws the parallels to how our brains think and how computer operate.

  23. 5 out of 5

    Emily

    This is a great introduction to computers, especially on the hardware side. I thought that I would be "beyond it," but my knowledge of what actually goes on inside the computer turns out to be pretty small. :) Since the basics of computers have stayed similar over the years, it is remarkably relevant for a computer book of its age, and concludes with an interesting disucssion of AI that makes me want to dig more into the subject. I definitely recommend it -- for budding computer scientists and h This is a great introduction to computers, especially on the hardware side. I thought that I would be "beyond it," but my knowledge of what actually goes on inside the computer turns out to be pretty small. :) Since the basics of computers have stayed similar over the years, it is remarkably relevant for a computer book of its age, and concludes with an interesting disucssion of AI that makes me want to dig more into the subject. I definitely recommend it -- for budding computer scientists and hobbyists alike.

  24. 4 out of 5

    Eyana

    Provides comprehensive introduction about fundamentals in computer science. I still find this book too verbose for beginners, but concepts introduced are good starting point for further study and research. Could have been a better read if more real-life analogies and illustrations are provided for clearer explanation. Some topics covered include the following: fundamental abstraction, boolean, finite-state mechanism, programming, algorithms and heuristics, quantum computing, turing machine, etc.

  25. 4 out of 5

    John Orman

    How do computers really work? That is the question this book attempts to answer. The author is the designer of the world's fastest computer, but he does succeed in explaining computers' complexity with simple analogies that can be understood by people without a scientific background. From Turing Machines to Quantum Computing by machines that learn and adapt, it is all in here!

  26. 4 out of 5

    Tom

    A very good book that introduces the theory behind modern computers. It does a good job of explaining the basic of Boolean logic, logic blocks, and algorithms and heuristics in an easy to understand way. If you are looking for in-depth explanations this isn't the book for you. If you want something that explains why computers work (and why they break) then this is an excellent primer.

  27. 5 out of 5

    Mark

    Easily the best introduction I know to what computing is about. It's quite clear — I read The Pattern on the Stone around the age of 14-17 or so, and as I flip through it now with a CS degree under my belt, I can only marvel how elegantly Hillis introduces many large and complicated topics.

  28. 5 out of 5

    Chris Callaway

    2.5 stars. There were times I wished I could press the author to clarify his meaning. But this is the only introduction to computer science I have read, so I'm not sure how well it compares to others.

  29. 4 out of 5

    Alexi Parizeau

    This book is basically a review of what you learn in an intro to computer science course. I gotta say I'm very impressed by how brilliantly the concepts are explained; definitely better than any textbook I've read! It's super short and definitely worth a read!

  30. 5 out of 5

    Mark Terry

    Hillis describes the basic principles that enable the operations of computers. It's fascinating just how much you can do with AND, OR and INVERSE. But really, just how much Boolean algebra does one man need?

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