Closer Than You Might Think

David Alan Grier David Alan Grier is a writer and scholar on computing technologies and was President of the IEEE Computer Society in 2013. He writes for Computer magazine. You can find videos of his writings at He has served as editor in chief of IEEE Annals of the History of Computing, as chair of the Magazine Operations Committee and as an editorial board member of Computer. Grier formerly wrote the monthly column "The Known World." He is an associate professor of science and technology policy at George Washington University in Washington, DC, with a particular interest in policy regarding digital technology and professional societies. He can be reached at

Meeting Protocol

Over the past month, I've been doing a little work to help one of the IEEE software conferences.  I have a very small role on the organizing committee.  I have spent a little time raise some money, get the support of a local education ministry and inspect the likely conference site. In all, I feel that I am spending most of my time in communications and trying to follow the IEEE conference protocols.  Complete a form.  Contact a minster.  Draft a notice.  I think that we spend more of our time coordinating our efforts than we actually spend working.  We may even spend more time in coordination than the speakers spend in research. Read more

Investing for the Future

The vice president for engineering gave me the usual response when I asked him how the IEEE Computer Society might be of help to his company. "Tell us where we should invest," he said, while making a big gesture with his arms. "Tell me which technology is going to be important so that we can make some money with it." I understood why he made this request, but felt that he really didn't understand what the Computer Society did or how it helped his engineers do their jobs better.  Ultimately, they would be able to answer his question better than I ever could. Read more

Getting Things Right

When my time came to be president of IEEE Computer Society, I didn't think I was quite ready for the job. I had risen very quickly through the leadership ranks and didn't know much about some parts of the society.  I knew little about standards and less about our education board.  I was worried that I might make a bad decision that would haunt my presidency.  A mistake that I could not correct.  However, as I got ready to take the position, a friend gave me a bit of friendly advice.  "You don't need to get everything right," he said, "you need to keep the organization on the path of improvement. Read more

The Center of the Universe

Koichi, a friend of mine, asked me to visit his office a few weeks ago to talk about the state of computing research.  He has a lovely office, located near the center of Washington, DC, and enjoys a beautiful view of the region.  Perhaps more importantly, he is an officer in one of the large government research organizations and near the center of the computing university. Read more 

Out With the Old and in With the New

Computer scientists and computing engineers don't deal with obsolescence well.  We quickly abandon old forms of technology as soon as new ones show their promise.  We claim that old software is useless and call the people who still use old systems "dinosaurs" or some other term that suggests that they are no longer productive members of the community.  Yet when we discard old technologies, we often fail to see how one technology builds upon another and how old ideas reappear in new solutions. Read more

Moving Ideas

Early in my career, I wrote a paper with a Chinese colleague on the technology transfer policies of Deng Xiaopeng. I had done no prior research in the field but was intrigued with the topic and enjoyed working with these colleagues. Read more 

Layers upon Layers

Towards the middle of May, Computer Society presidents start preparing for a major Board of Governors meeting in June. It's a large job and requires me to write the agenda and get the members ready for the meeting. Read more

A Migrating Process

Somehow time and place got lost.  During the last month, I promised myself that I would write my next column for the China Computing Federation as I shuttled from one IEEE meeting to another. That plan got lost in the shuttle from one airport to another. I hope that I am forgiven for the lapse, as movement seems to be one of the themes of this season. Perhaps, in the process, I will learn what needs to be moved and what does not. Read more

The Trade Union for Software Engineers?

As president of the IEEE Computer Society, I have had to talk to a lot of reporters about the state of technology. Over the past year, I have had to discuss 3D printing, the recent Chinese supercomputer, and the Internet of Things.  In early November, shortly after I returned from the Chinese National Computing Congress, I had to talk about the nature of the society itself. Read more

Market Algorithms

Should you ever go to the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, you can easily get confused and start to think that this is the place where technology leaves the laboratory and marches into the world in order to improve society. The show tells you that electronic technology is the most important force in the world today.  It offers hundreds of talks and thousands of exhibits about the newest products and the most innovative services. Over 150,000 people attended the show, looking for the ideas that will shape the future. If they had looked carefully enough, they would have seen that the Consumer Electronics Show not only reveals the value of electronic products, it also shows how the market shapes research and how our technology is moving to incorporate economic ideas. Read more

All Things New

For the past six weeks, I have been adjusting to the life of a former president of the Computer Society.  At some level, the transition has been easy and welcome.  Sometime, in early January, people simply stopped sending me email. I no longer opened my mailbox to find society members asking for help with their subscription to Computer or the bill for their society dues or the conference that won't accept their paper. Yet, as I move through this period, I find that I cannot shed some of the business of the society as easily as I thought. Some of the projects that I started last year are not over.  A negotiation still needs to be completed.  There are responsibilities that I have to complete. These experiences have caused me to reflect on the bigger issues that the Computer Society faces when it needs to put aside a set of activities that have outlived their usefulness and start something new. This is a problem that all professional societies face. As we try to advance the field, we discover that we can't always drop activities that have outlived their usefulness.  Read more

Software Engineering: Two Directions at Once

You've got to read the audience.  It's one of hardest things you need to do when you are giving a technical talk.  Are they looking for details and guidance?  Are they looking for inspiration and vision of the future?  Again, if that is what they want then you had better be prepared to give it to them.  How about a fair and honest assessment of the state of technical careers? That is not as common among audiences.  Therefore, you had better be ready for comments if you are giving that kind of talk. Read more

Knowledge for Business

I wish I could say that I had been the peacemaker, but there was little peace to be made. We had gathered to discuss how we might develop the field of mobile computing but before 10 minutes had passed, we were in an argument that threatened to split the group. The battle line fell the way that it usually does in the IEEE Computer Society, splitting the university professors from the industrial engineers. Read more

The Global Classroom

Some days, I wonder if we did the right thing when we decided to bring computers and Internet connections into the classroom. This technology brings a lot of useful information into class discussions but it also brings many tempting distractions. Only the strongest students can sit in front of a computer without succumbing to the temptation to review the news on Instagram, or check the latest scores of sporting events, or send a message to their friends. We have brought the world into our classroom but we are still struggling to engage that world in our instruction. Read more

Thinking in Parallel

The problem of getting a group of busy professionals to find a single time to meet is hard enough but it also seems to reflect the problems that we are trying to address with our new forms of parallel machines. I have been following this effort, which focuses on the use of Graphical Processing Units, or GPUs, to do work in parallel. We are investigating general applications for these processors because we have encountered a difficult physical barrier with our efforts to scale computers ever smaller and smaller. Read more

Ghosts in the Machine

The themes for this year's China National Computing Congress were easy to predict.  The current issues for computing emerged about five or six years ago.  Cloud.  Privacy.  Big Data.  Mobile Platforms.  Security.  Parallel Architectures.  Yet, it was a map program that prepared me for the discussions at the meeting, for that program revealed a ghost in the machine, an old idea that has become a crucial issue with the new technologies. I was using the mapping program in order to get a better understanding of Zhengzhou. Read more

Common Values

Not that long ago, I made the Founder of the Free Software Foundation, Richard Stallman, mad at me. At the time, I thought it was quite an accomplishment as I had never met Mr. Stallman and was fairly certain that he had never heard of me. To be honest, the controversy between us is of small consequence. Should we meet in the future, we will not be likely to exchange blows. However, the controversy between us was a reminder that the software world remains divided between those who believe that software should be free and those who consider it to be a commercial product. Read more

Rate of Return

The problem starts when we don’t test our assumptions, when base a project on some idea that seems so fundamentally true to us that we can’t imagine that this fails in some circumstance. The Earth always moves around the sun. The speed of light is always 186,000 miles per second in a vacuum. Why can’t we assume that our software will always be used exactly as we have used it? Read more

Imitating Life

It seemed like a good idea at the time, but its value is something that you will have to judge. It arrived when I was walking the streets of Dongcheng on the morning of the 2015 CCF Awards Banquet. My travels took me past a cinema that was near the hotel. When I saw the movie posters, I thought that I should write about the new film about Alan Turing, “The Imitation Game.” The movie is quite popular in the United States and Europe, though it is also making computer scientists a bit uneasy. Read more

Asking for Directions

I have a question about China:  Do men, when they are driving, ask others for directions? For instance, when a man is driving in an unfamiliar neighborhood, might he ever stop and ask someone, “Can you direct me to the Chengxin Comprehensive Supermarket?” I am interested because it might help me understand the recent interest in autonomous or self-driving cars. Read more