Closer Than You Might Think
Instructions for the computing professional.

Recent Posts

By David Alan Grier
It might be dangerous to volunteer your sister to be a use case for a software project, especially when that software project comes from the startup of a good friend. There are just too many opportunities for problems. Your sister can feel that she is being used. Your friend might…
By David Alan Grier
I was perhaps one of the last PhD candidates in the sciences to sit for language exam. I had done all of my research in English, but before I could complete my degree, I had to show that I could read technical articles that had been published in two different…
By David Alan Grier
He said “control.” I thought “pride.” We were probably both right. I was visiting my friend Peter’s business, which sells a complex software decision tool. He was showing me his offices and took me thorough a large windowless room filled with racks of computers. “What is this?” I asked without…
By David Alan Grier
Over the past year or so, I’ve heard two distinct stories about machine learning. At face value, each story illustrates a different aspect about this technology. At times, the two seem inconsistent. Yet, when viewed together, they suggest the nature of machine learning and the way that we need to…
By David Alan Grier
A new book on software engineering has unearthed an old term, “software crisis.” The author made a strong case that our programmers are not able to create the software that we need. There have “not been similar advances in relation to our software development capability” as there have been to…
By David Alan Grier
Are we in the middle of a new industrial revolution, one based on cyber-physical systems? I have regularly been asked this question as I have traveled the US to visit computer business and research labs. I’ve heard CTOs and CEOs and even computer researchers claim that we are in the…
By David Alan Grier
There is great value in reading classic literature, but computer scientists are often reluctant to read anything but the most recent articles. Statistics from the IEEE and ACM digital libraries suggest that we rarely look at anything more than two or three years old. Yet, by constraining our vision, we…
By David Alan Grier
The “most profound technologies are those that disappear,” wrote the computer scientist David Weisser some 20 years ago. They “weave themselves into the fabric of everyday life until they are indistinguishable from it.” However, some technologies require a substantial public discussion before they take their place as part of the…
By David Alan Grier
Long before we had high-performance computing, we had high-performance computing centers. In spring 1904—almost half a century before the advent of the electronic computer—astronomer Simon Newcomb proposed a “Center for the Exact Sciences.” This center would do a variety of things to support scientific research, but one of its central…
By David Alan Grier
Rumors and rumors of rumors. As the 10th anniversary of the iPhone approaches, we are starting to hear stories about how Apple might celebrate the event. The most common story seems to be one that suggests that the company will release a new version of its smartphone that resembles nothing…
By David Alan Grier
Of all the branches or disciplines of computer science, the field of Monte Carlo simulation is perhaps the least understood. It is often viewed as something quite distant from computer science, an application for computers rather than a body of research that has contributed to the development of computers. Yet…
By David Alan Grier
A recent article on the Google software repository revealed something of the current state of software development. It showed the distance that software production had traveled since its origins in the 1950s and how it keeps returning to a basic set of ideas about the organization of work, ideas that…
By David Alan Grier
Over the past eight months, I have been following stories about bitcoin—an electronic currency that has been available for roughly the past seven years. It is an independent mechanism of exchange, created by no country and managed by no central bank. It presents itself as trustworthy currency. “We have proposed,”…
By David Alan Grier
Situational awareness. This is the trend of the day. Not too long ago, my students wanted to do projects that involved big data or the Internet of Things or machine learning. Now, they want to work on situational awareness. As with much of computing, it is something new and old.…
By David Alan Grier
Eventually, I had to ask for directions to my meeting. I had been wandering the large, mostly empty Orlando Conference Center in search of a committee meeting. I had just arrived in town after a long flight and was unable to make sense of my directions. Most of the people…
By David Alan Grier
Over the past four years, I have been watching the computing community struggle with the name “cloud computing.” When the term first began to appear in the literature, many of my colleagues resisted the name because they claimed that there was no new technology behind it. Some went so far…
By David Alan Grier
The invention of the computer is a contentious subject, and it encourages me to start this column with a little bit of advice, if you will allow me to offer advice. Should anyone ever ask you to debate the origins, invention, or creation of the electronic stored program computer, politely…
By David Alan Grier
I’ve never viewed software as a controversial idea any more than I’ve considered wheels to be controversial. Wheels are simple things. They have an axle and a rim, and are useful for many things. Software is a little more complicated but is little more than a list of instructions. Yet…
By David Alan Grier
One of my former students, a young man named Devin, surprised me recently when he told me he spent about $3,000 to take a course on Ruby on Rails—a Web development framework. Almost immediately, I asked him why he needed to take such a course. I try to educate my…
By David Alan Grier
We put great faith in our electronic libraries of technical articles, such as IEEE Xplore. Time and again, people have told me that these libraries have completely replaced the traditional scholarly journal. “Journals are obsolete,” a friend once told me. “You can get more technical content from an electronic library…
By David Alan Grier
I was unable to attend the Chinese National Computing Congress this year; other tasks kept me close to home. I was sorry to miss the meeting. I had wanted to see some old friends and meet a few new ones. Most important, I had wanted to learn how Chinese researchers…
By David Alan Grier
There is something in a conference that defines our field. I have younger colleagues who claim that conferences are far more valuable to their careers than publishing a paper in a journal. I am sympathetic to their claims, even though I spent years resisting them when I served as a…
By David Alan Grier
Many difficult problems in computer science remain unsolved. Determining the relationship between P and NP—the problems that can be solved in polynomial time and those that cannot—is perhaps the most famous, but there are many others. What is the fastest way to multiply two matrices? Is it possible to factor…
By David Alan Grier
We are in the midst of a public debate about artificial intelligence. This discussion began sometime last fall, following a popular movie about Alan Turing and some announcements about robotic automobiles. Like many public debates, the discussion has been shaped by fear. Many of the comments reflect a concern that…
By David Alan Grier
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…
By David Alan Grier
I have a hard time convincing people that the study of programming is interesting. Even many of my fellow IEEE members think that the idea is strange and cannot possibly lead to any useful knowledge. “What do you expect to learn,” one of them asked me in a taunting voice,…
By David Alan Grier
At my first job as a programmer, I was assigned a mentor, a senior programmer named Matt. Matt was to help me become a good employee. According to the company handbook, Matt was supposed to teach me the company history, how to work with others, how to treat customers, and…
By David Alan Grier
Perry didn’t blame e-commerce for putting him out of business. “There were a lot of factors,” he explained to me. “Retail has changed considerably since your grandfather owned the store.” Yet as we talked, I could clearly see that the forces of e-commerce had directly and indirectly contributed to the…
By David Alan Grier
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…
By David Alan Grier
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…
By David Alan Grier
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…
By David Alan Grier
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…
By David Alan Grier
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…
By David Alan Grier
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…
By David Alan Grier
Toward 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. Since the society is run by professors of computer science or software…
By David Alan Grier
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. We had met when he decided to attend one…
By David Alan Grier
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…
By David Alan Grier
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…
By David Alan Grier
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…
By David Alan Grier
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…
By David Alan Grier
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…
By David Alan Grier
It is tough to do anything with other people during the summer. My academic colleagues are spending much of the warm months doing things that they cannot get done during the academic year. They are visiting other labs, going to conferences, or merely trying to draft a paper and refusing…
By David Alan Grier
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…
By David Alan Grier
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…
By David Alan Grier
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…
By David Alan Grier
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.…
By David Alan Grier
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…
   Meet the Author
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 video.dagrier.net. 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.