Article: “The Tinkerings of Robert Noyce” by Tom Wolfe

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I came across this article whilst listening to an episode of the Esquire Classics podcast.  I had never heard of Robert Noyce so I located the article and was instantly enthralled. Noyce was the (joint) inventor of the integrated circuit (“microchip”) and one of the founders of Intel.  I’ve heard of Gordon Moore and Andy Grove so I’m not sure why Noyce is not mentioned along with his colleagues.  His invention changed the world yet his is not a household name.  Why?

The article is by Tom Wolfe (author of The Bonfire of the Vanities) and is from the December 1983 issue of Esquire magazine.  The full title of the piece adds “How the Sun Rose on the Silicon Valley”.

I’ve read a couple of Tom Wolfe’s books and I’m a fan of his writing style.  This style is evident here, particularly in the exquisite use of the exclamation mark!

It’s very interesting to look back at history (the 1950s – 1970s) from another point in history (1983).  What is clear is that many things that we see happening today in the technology field are not the modern-day innovations we think they are, such as:

• big breakthroughs that will underpin future revolutions

• extremely rich tech entrepreneurs

• company startup culture / working crazy hours / stock options etc

• businesses trying to remove the traditional management structure

This has been going on for over half a century at this point.

The biggest technological breakthrough I could think of was the internet, which is starting to underpin everything we do today.  It truly is / will be revolutionary.  But without the invention of the integrated circuit in 1959 there would be no internet.

The microchip allowed people to fly to the moon within a decade of its introduction.

Even the introduction to the article – published over 30 years ago – could have been written now:

America is today in the midst of a great technological revolution. With the advent of the silicon chip, information processing, communications, and the national economy have been strikingly altered. The new technology is changing how we live, how we work, how we think.

Today we hear about ARM chips, data science and mobile.  It is the same stuff as before – it’s just that the technology has evolved over time. People refine and combine technologies to create something new.  Noyce did the same, but he built upon the transistor and the vacuum tube.

The article benefits from having Tom Wolfe as the author – the piece rises above what could have been a dry history and a tangle of techno-babble.  The wit and wordplay shine as the author portrays the people and the scene…

… maybe he would drop in at the Wagon Wheel for a drink before he went home. Every year there was some place, the Wagon Wheel, Chez Yvonne, Rickey’s, the Roundhouse, where members of this esoteric fraternity, the young men and women of the semiconductor industry, would head after work to have a drink and gossip and brag and trade war stories about phase jitters, phantom circuits, bubble memories, pulse trains, bounceless contacts, burst modes, leapfrog tests, p-n junctions, sleeping-sickness modes, slow-death episodes, RAMs, NAKs, MOSes, PCMs, PROMs, PROM blowers, PROM burners, PROM blasters, and teramagnitudes, meaning multiples of a million millions. So then he wouldn’t get home until nine, and the baby was asleep, and dinner was cold, and the wife was frosted off, and he would stand there and cup his hands as if making an imaginary snowball and try to explain to her… while his mind trailed off to other matters, LSIs, VLSIs, alpha flux, de-rezzing, forward biases, parasitic signals, and that terasexy little cookie from Signetics he had met at the Wagon Wheel, who understood such things.

… and contrasts the business practices between the east and west coasts of America:

Nobody had ever seen a limousine and a chauffeur out there before. But that wasn’t what fixed the day in everybody’s memory. It was the fact that the driver stayed out there for almost eight hours, doing nothing. He stayed out there in his uniform, with his visored hat on, in the front seat of the limousine, all day, doing nothing but waiting for a man who was somewhere inside. John Carter was inside having a terrific chief executive officer’s time for himself. He took a tour of the plant, he held conferences, he looked at figures, he nodded with satisfaction, he beamed his urbane Fifty-seventh Street Biggie CEO charm. And the driver sat out there all day engaged in the task of supporting a visored cap with his head. People started leaving their workbenches and going to the front windows just to take a look at this phenomenon. It seemed that bizarre. Here was a serf who did nothing all day but wait outside a door in order to be at the service of the haunches of his master instantly, whenever those haunches and the paunch and the jowls might decide to reappear. It wasn’t merely that this little peek at the New York-style corporate high life was unusual out here in the brown hills of the Santa Clara Valley. It was that it seemed terribly wrong.

Articles are just not written like this any more. I absolutely recommend it – it is long but it is worth taking your time and reading.

 

• Article:  The Tinkerings of Robert Noyce

• The Esquire Classics podcast: The Tinkerings of Robert Noyce

Great albums I’ve found on Apple Music

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I’ve subscribed to Apple Music pretty much since the beginning and our family uses it on both iOS and Android.  It is not perfect, suffering from a number of little flaws on my old iPhone, but its recommendations have led me to discover some great music.  This tends to be in areas that I would not generally venture into such as jazz.

The radio stations are also getting better now that I am telling them what to play more (or less) of.  I never really expected to use the radio stations but I’m listening this way more and more.

It’s still very hard to link to songs / albums in Apple Music, so this is a simple list.  Try these out – you might like them…

Beth Hart – Better Than Home

Cécile McLorin Salvant – For One To Love / WomanChild

Diego Figueiredo – Broken Bossa

Joanne Shaw Taylor – The Dirty Truth

Kamasi Washington – The Epic

Mack Avenue SuperBand – Live from the Detroit Jazz Festival 2012 / 2013 / 2014 / 2015

Matthew Halsall & The Gondwana Orchestra – Into Forever / When the World Was One

Max Richter – From Sleep / Recomposed By Max Richter: Vivaldi, The Four Seasons

Nils Frahm – Wintermusik

The Souljazz Orchestra – Resistance / Inner Fire

 

 

Film: The Revenant

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After being attacked by a bear, a man is left for dead.  He survives, driven by the desire for revenge.

Unflinchingly violent, achingly beautiful, this deserves to be seen on a big screen.

 

Review: “Noble House” by James Clavell (audiobook edition)

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It’s 1963 and there is a new Tai-Pan at the head of Struan’s trading company. From the very beginning it is clear that big change is coming. The Noble House is in deep financial trouble and is looking antequainted – its fixation with its own past is very much in evidence. Business is brutal, with rivals old and new – they are out to destroy the Noble House, and look more than capable.

There is a real sense of tension in the air – who will get the upper hand in the games of ego, suspicion, business, power, sex?

Clavell’s earlier book Tai-Pan forms the history that this book is built upon, but it is utterly dwarfed by this massive, amazing story.  Although Tai-Pan is good, in comparison with Noble House it becomes a nice little story about smugglers and their minor feuds.  If you are serious about getting the most out of Noble House then it is essential background material.

To put the book’s timing into some kind of context – it is set over the course of a week in August 1963 – this is the year that Kim Philby (a powerful British spy) defects to Russia, Chairman Mao is in power in China, the Vietnam war is on and JFK is assassinated.  Such specific timing means that the story has not aged.

Noble House is truly epic and in the beginning it builds layer upon layer of plot.  This huge book – my paperback copy stretches to over 1400 pages, 2 inches thick – is an incredible achievement in storytelling.  Over the last five years I have tried to read the book twice, each time getting about 300 pages in before I have had to stop due to lack of time.  This time I have listened to the story as an audiobook, and at 50+ hours it is a big commitment.

This version of the audiobook is a new recording from 2015 – before then there was a version from about 20 years ago which is basically unavailable.  The narrator is truly excellent, an upper class English accent when telling the story, able to imbue each individual character with a different voice – although he stuggles slightly when tackling a number of Scottish accents.  Still, it is a consistantly impressive job, which is a blessing given that you are spending so much time with his voice in your head…

It is hard to express how much I have enjoyed reading this book.  This is powerhouse storytelling by a master, without a wasted sentence, and at the end you have a desire for it to keep going.  If what you are looking for is an all-encompassing story that you can live in, then look no further.

 

Film: Star Wars: The Force Awakens

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I managed to go into the new Star Wars film without having seen anything apart from the very first trailer and having heard nothing about the plot.  I keep hearing that the film is making serious amounts of money and I’m not surprised – I saw the film a couple of weeks after release and the 9am weekday showing I went to was at least 3/4 full.  My local cinema still has 29 showings a day…

Expectations are very high for this film and for the most part it manages to meet them.  This is easily the best Star Wars film since The Empire Strikes Back (although some may say that the competition is not up to much…).  The film goes back to the “beat-up” universe of the original trilogy and it looks great – even though I only saw it in 2D. It achieves its basic requirement: putting down firm foundations for the several more Star Wars films and spin offs that will be coming our way over the next few years.

The new cast members are good and they bring a good dose of humour to the story even if their characters are not fully fleshed out.  It’s good to see the old-timers back on the screen.

Don’t expect miracles from the plot – once things get going you do get a real sense of déja-vu.  This is the third time part of this story line has been used in the Star Wars films.  You’d think that the bad guys would have a bit more imagination by now.  That’s not to say that the story doesn’t have its killer twists.

This is a great film.  You cannot deny that there is still a certain magic when the film starts, the yellow plot synopsis disappearing into the far reaches of space whilst the main title music blasts out.  Experiencing that on a big screen still gives me the tingles…