For those of you who have been following "Cubist Threads" from its inception, you know - both of you - that several of my little musings have centered around brushes I've had with "greatness." Presuming I understand my own thought processes well enough to comment, I'd have to guess that recounting these events has been little more than a failed attempt to mask my own mediocrity (or, perhaps, to emerge from it).
So far, my recollections have all come from my years before IBM. Oh, it's not that I haven't encountered greatness here - quite the contrary - it's just that you probably wouldn't recognize most of the names. For instance, who's ever heard of Benoit Mandelbrot?
Okay, savvy computer folks, that was a rhetorical question. Unless you've been living under a heat sink for the past 15 years, you've undoubtedly heard of the so-called "Mandelbrot Set," named after this august IBMer. Creative renderings of the "edge" of that eminent region of the complex plane might well adorn your screen or wall or necktie.
The Mandelbrot Set holds a special place in my personal computing history: I probably owe my early career to its simplicity, beauty, and allure. Long after my introduction to his work, I actually met Benoit Mandelbrot at a conference in 1989; hence, this month's "brush with greatness."
I dabbled briefly with computers in high school, but the ugliness of the whole "batch" programming process - punch your card deck, submit it to the operator, pick up your results, and try to think up new epithets when you realize you've wasted two hours - left me cold. I've always been a sort of "instant gratification" person at heart, so mid-'70s batch technology and I were fundamentally incompatible.
Then, after a time, computing and I met again. While I had changed quite a bit during the intervening years, computing had changed even more dramatically. The year was 1985, the personal computer was a reality, and I bought my first - a PC-XT, with its incredible 10 megabytes of hard disk space - to help me pursue my degree.
Trying to use the version of BASIC that came with my XT was almost my undoing. I remember studying the BASIC manual, thinking I'd never make any progress. "Hello, world" was about as far as I was getting, and it was frustrating. Then I discovered an amazing, affordable piece of software that was a true work of art, Turbo Pascal.
TP version 3 included a complete editor, compiler, and debugger, cost about $35, and required only 37K of runtime RAM. Further, it could run circles around anything else I could afford (which wasn't much). Basically, I got "hooked" into programming by Turbo Pascal, and have never been the same.
What does this have to do with the Mandelbrot Set? My introduction to this mathematical marvel came in the form of a fine-print program listing among the pages of Turbo Technix, a short-lived Turbo-centric publication from Borland. Included with an article about the Mandelbrot Set was the complete source code for a simple renderer. I pored over the pages, typing carefully, and finally got a clean compile. I didn't know it at the time but my life had just changed forever.
Every night before going to bed I'd pick out a new region of the set to render. The PC would labor in silence all night long, and when I got up I would be greeted by yet another adventure into some corner of infinity. Of course, after spending a few minutes enjoying the monochrome green-on-black rendering, I'd pick a new region and kick off the process again.
For those of you who haven't dipped your toes into the infinite depths of the Mandelbrot Set - or some other fractal bounding main - a part of me envies you. I've spent many happy hours exploring the convoluted "reality" of the Mandelbrot Set, finding beauty in measures that only nature can provide. However, while shadows of its shape are realized with gates and CPUs and pixels, its sheer existence is independent of any such realization. The Mandelbrot Set is a fact of nature, and a beautiful mystery as well.
If you've never seen the Mandelbrot Set, or maybe just not lately, take a few minutes and go exploring. Point your search engine to the name "Mandelbrot" and take a peek at the folded edge of infinity.
Blair Wyman is a software engineer working for IBM
in Rochester, Minnesota, home of the IBM iSeries.