Recommended by Ricochet Members Created with Sketch. QOTD: The Epic Story of Human Memory

 
Most of us know what we should expect to find in a dragon’s lair, but, as I said before, Eustace had read only the wrong books. They had a lot to say about exports and imports and governments and drains, but they were weak on dragons.
― C.S. Lewis, The Voyage of the Dawn Treader
 
Eustace Scrubb should have read The Guardian of All Things: The Epic Story of Human Memory by @michaelsmalone (2013). It is not weak on dragons. A chapter on “Long Leggedy Beasties: Memory as Classification” has several pages about them. It also has quite a bit about exports and imports, if you think of it as including the export and import of information to human minds and computers. There is not much about drains in particular, but Malone covers other civil infrastructure such as computer networks. You could say it is weak on the topic of governments and memory, but there is good coverage of government census-taking from the time of the Egyptian pharaohs through the development of punched cards for the U.S. census. 
 
Before taking the reader on a journey to Dragons and DRAM (Dynamic Random-Access Memory) Malone starts earlier, even earlier than early hominids and the role of memory in becoming human. But that’s where it gets interesting. Maybe somebody who keeps up with popular anthropology on the internet would already know these things, but I learned from this book how singing probably preceded speech. The phrase “singing Neanderthals,” has stuck with me. I wonder if they sat around their campfires wearing bellbottoms, strumming on mastodon-gut guitars.
 
And the ability to use language made it possible to do analogies and metaphor. Which makes me wonder if instead of bringing us closer to the glorious future as described by Ray Kurzweil, who gets a lot of pages towards the end of the book, the internet has made the future go backwards. Because whenever I make an analogy involving apples and oranges, somebody on the Internet is sure to say, sarcastically, “Yes, because apples are exactly like oranges.” Sigh. But I digress.
 
Since this post is about the Quote of the Day, here’s a bonus quote, this time from the book: “To lose our memories, as human beings, is to lose our identity, just as the loss of memory to a computer reduces it to little more than an adding machine.” If I ever dust off an old adding machine, I’ll think of it as a computer that has gone to live in a memory care unit.
 
A recurring concept in the book is “Memory is Power.” Malone shows us the history of memory as a liberating and empowering force, and not just in keeping us, for the time being, out of the special wings of the nursing homes.
 
But the reason I wonder if Eustace Scrubb would have learned enough about governments from the book is that there is little explicit talk of how governments use their memory of us as a liberating and empowering force to enslave and diminish us. The book was published in 2013, before China started its program of social credit scores and before the tech giants had gone as far as they have towards implementing their programs of “all your memory are belong to us.” They are obviously going beyond our photos, health care records and shopping lists. It’s not clear yet how soon the tech companies will become arms of the governments, but there are a lot of people who are intent on it, and the forces resisting it are relatively weak. But while Malone doesn’t address that aspect of memory as directly as I would like, he gives us plenty with which to think about it.
 
One final takeaway is that Ricochet could become a memory machine instead of a forgetting machine. There is encouraging news on that front. @blueyeti seems to have taken seriously the idea of a better search engine for Ricochet and the notion that some of us would like to retrieve our posted stories in printable form so that we can save them for our families for posterity.
 
(Footnote: I don’t think this is the first time the Dawn Treader quote has been used for the Quote of the Day. Until a couple days ago I thought I had signed this up on the Group Writing: Memories calendar. But since nobody has said the same quote can’t be used twice, I figured it would work here as well.) 
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  1. Michael S. Malone Contributor

    Wow, Reticulator, you are very kind. I was doing my daily read through Ricochet (I’ve been a member since the beginning — I’m an old friend of Peter Robinson) when I came across your essay. What a great Christmas present! I’m glad you enjoyed it. It’s very different from most of my books (tech history and biography) and one of my favorites.

    As you mention, the book was published in 2013 — and some of my worst fears have already begun to come true. If you’re curious about my thoughts these days about the future, you may want to check out my next book, which will be published in February, entitled The Autonomous Revolution. I wrote it with the legendary venture capitalist Bill Davidow — we co-wrote the hugely influential best-seller The Virtual Corporation twenty-five years ago. This book will likely scare the hell out of you — we argue that we are not entering the Fourth Industrial Revolution, but something far, far bigger: a social Phase Change the likes of which human beings have encountered only twice before. Not only will everything change, but even all of the rules will change . . .and it is impossible for us, even now, to predict what those rules will be.

    Needless to say, there’s a lot of history in the new book. David Kennedy, the great historian, compares us to Heraclitus and Henry Adams in his introduction. Utterly untrue, of course, but good for a blush.

    Guardian was one of my least sellers, but the one closest to my heart (along with my Eagle Scout book). I’m hoping the new book does better — but even if it doesn’t, I long ago learned that for an author there is no correlation between book sales and books you care about.

    Thanks again for the kind words.

    • #1
    • December 30, 2019, at 11:46 PM PST
    • 13 likes
  2. Vectorman Thatcher

    The Reticulator: They are obviously going beyond our photos, health care records and shopping lists.

    Google Home, Siri, Cortana, and Amazon Alexa


    The Quote of the Day series is the easiest way to start a fun conversation on Ricochet. There are many open days on the January Signup Sheet, including 3 next week. We even include tips for finding great quotes, so choose your favorite quote and sign up today!

    • #2
    • December 31, 2019, at 1:17 AM PST
    • 2 likes
  3. Randy Webster Member

    Vectorman (View Comment):

    The Reticulator: They are obviously going beyond our photos, health care records and shopping lists.

    Google Home, Siri, Cortana, and Amazon Alexa


    It’ll be a cold day in hell when I have one of those in my house.

    • #3
    • December 31, 2019, at 3:41 AM PST
    • 6 likes
  4. Arahant Member

    Randy Webster (View Comment):
    It’ll be a cold day in hell when I have one of those in my house.

    Amen, brother. My wife’s niece enters homes and says, “Alexa, order 1,000 pounds of cat food. Google, order the latest Tesla…” It’s a great strategy to determine if devices are listening.

    • #4
    • December 31, 2019, at 6:19 AM PST
    • 3 likes
  5. OkieSailor Member
    OkieSailor Joined in the first year of Ricochet Ricochet Charter Member

    Arahant (View Comment):

    Randy Webster (View Comment):
    It’ll be a cold day in hell when I have one of those in my house.

    Amen, brother. My wife’s niece enters homes and says, “Alexa, order 1,000 pounds of cat food. Google, order the latest Tesla…” It’s a great strategy to determine if devices are listening.

    Of course they are listening that’s the only way they could respond. They are supposed to only respond to certain types of requests which is entirely possible and only report certain types of things to their internet ‘masters’. I’m skeptical of both.

    • #5
    • December 31, 2019, at 6:50 AM PST
    • 4 likes
  6. Vectorman Thatcher

    Arahant (View Comment):

    Randy Webster (View Comment):
    It’ll be a cold day in hell when I have one of those in my house.

    Amen, brother. My wife’s niece enters homes and says, “Alexa, order 1,000 pounds of cat food. Google, order the latest Tesla…” It’s a great strategy to determine if devices are listening.

    I still don’t trust them. They make copies and use human listeners to help with their speech recognition algorithms.

    • #6
    • December 31, 2019, at 6:51 AM PST
    • 3 likes
  7. Arahant Member

    OkieSailor (View Comment):
    I’m skeptical of both.

    So are many of us, which is why we don’t want them around.

    • #7
    • December 31, 2019, at 6:59 AM PST
    • 2 likes
  8. The Reticulator Member
    The Reticulator

    @michaelsmalone, since you did me the honor of commenting on my post, I wonder if I could press you further on one point, concerning the relationship of the Intel microprocessor to the DEC VAX. This doesn’t sound like something that will be covered in your next book, but maybe you can refer me to other information by you or others.

    In the book you say that Intel and Ted Hoff based the architecture of the Intel 4004 microprocessor on the Digital VAX. But they were working on this in 1969-70, and the VAX didn’t come out until late in the decade. At my workplace we had only the 2nd VAX that was installed in Michigan, according to some of the service or sales people. Or maybe it was the 2nd one ordered; my memory is a little fuzzy now. The first one had gone to one of the auto manufacturers. Anyway, ours was installed in 1980.

    So how could the Intel microprocessor be based on something that didn’t come out until nearly ten years later? Towards the end of the book you say that it was based on the design of the VAX. I imagine the design preceded the actual production and sales by some time, but how would Intel people have gotten access to the design information? Wouldn’t Gordon Bell and Digital have kept that information confidential?

    If those points can be reconciled, my next question would be about which design elements were taken from the VAX. I never did any programming at the machine level, or even assembly level, but a couple of things that made the VAX/VMS system a pleasure to work with were the efficient virtual memory system and the interrupt and error-handling system (which I worked with through the System Services that were available to higher level languages). As far as I could tell, Intel systems were crude and backward when it came to things like that. I was always a little fuzzy on just how those were dependent on hardware, but I don’t think they were completely independent of hardware capabilities. In any case, it would be interesting to know just which design elements came from the VAX. There is a chance I might be able to understand it at some vague level. 

    I was aware that Microsoft’s NT operating system had some VMS heritage; I was hopeful back when people were saying Gordon Bell had gone to Microsoft to help it develop NT. When it finally came out, NT was a letdown to someone like me who had had the privilege of working with the clean layers of VAX/VMS. 

    • #8
    • December 31, 2019, at 10:19 AM PST
    • 4 likes
  9. Henry Racette Contributor

    Terrific post, and a compelling review — so much so that the book is downloading to my Kindle now.

    Thank you, and have a wonderful New Year!

    • #9
    • December 31, 2019, at 11:38 AM PST
    • 4 likes
  10. The Reticulator Member
    The Reticulator

    Randy Webster (View Comment):

    Vectorman (View Comment):

    The Reticulator: They are obviously going beyond our photos, health care records and shopping lists.

    Google Home, Siri, Cortana, and Amazon Alexa


    It’ll be a cold day in hell when I have one of those in my house.

    How about a cold day in a leaky, antebellum house in Michigan?

    • #10
    • December 31, 2019, at 11:44 AM PST
    • 3 likes
  11. The Reticulator Member
    The Reticulator

    Henry Racette (View Comment):

    Terrific post, and a compelling review — so much so that the book is downloading to my Kindle now.

    Thank you, and have a wonderful New Year!

    You’re welcome. I was really hoping others would want to read it and enjoy it, too. 

    • #11
    • December 31, 2019, at 12:06 PM PST
    • 1 like
  12. Randy Webster Member

    The Reticulator (View Comment):

    Randy Webster (View Comment):

    Vectorman (View Comment):

    The Reticulator: They are obviously going beyond our photos, health care records and shopping lists.

    Google Home, Siri, Cortana, and Amazon Alexa


    It’ll be a cold day in hell when I have one of those in my house.

    How about a cold day in a leaky, antebellum house in Michigan?

    Lol. I don’t care how they do it in Michigan.

    • #12
    • December 31, 2019, at 12:42 PM PST
    • 2 likes
  13. Michael S. Malone Contributor

    The Reticulator (View Comment):

    @michaelsmalone, since you did me the honor of commenting on my post, I wonder if I could press you further on one point, concerning the relationship of the Intel microprocessor to the DEC VAX. This doesn’t sound like something that will be covered in your next book, but maybe you can refer me to other information by you or others.

    In the book you say that Intel and Ted Hoff based the architecture of the Intel 4004 microprocessor on the Digital VAX. But they were working on this in 1969-70, and the VAX didn’t come out until late in the decade. At my workplace we had only the 2nd VAX that was installed in Michigan, according to some of the service or sales people. Or maybe it was the 2nd one ordered; my memory is a little fuzzy now. The first one had gone to one of the auto manufacturers. Anyway, ours was installed in 1980.

    So how could the Intel microprocessor be based on something that didn’t come out until nearly ten years later? Towards the end of the book you say that it was based on the design of the VAX. I imagine the design preceded the actual production and sales by some time, but how would Intel people have gotten access to the design information? Wouldn’t Gordon Bell and Digital have kept that information confidential?

    If those points can be reconciled, my next question would be about which design elements were taken from the VAX. I never did any programming at the machine level, or even assembly level, but a couple of things that made the VAX/VMS system a pleasure to work with were the efficient virtual memory system and the interrupt and error-handling system (which I worked with through the System Services that were available to higher level languages). As far as I could tell, Intel systems were crude and backward when it came to things like that. I was always a little fuzzy on just how those were dependent on hardware, but I don’t think they were completely independent of hardware capabilities. In any case, it would be interesting to know just which design elements came from the VAX. There is a chance I might be able to understand it at some vague level.

    I was aware that Microsoft’s NT operating system had some VMS heritage; I was hopeful back when people were saying Gordon Bell had gone to Microsoft to help it develop NT. When it finally came out, NT was a letdown to someone like me who had had the privilege of working with the clean layers of VAX/VMS.

    Reticulator: You are absolutely correct. One of the first things I learned as a cub reporter — and enforced years later as a magazine editor — is that when writing anything, the factual mistakes you make will not be on those things you don’t know (because you’ll look them up) but those you think you do know (because you won’t fact-check them). When I wrote Guardian I did a massive amount of historic research . . .but when I got to the chapter on the semiconductor industry — my turf — I credited the first microprocessor’s architecture to the DEC VAX, a “fact” I thought I knew. As you’ve correctly pointed out, the real fact was that the VAX didn’t yet exist. It was, in fact, DEC’s PDP architecture, in this case the PDP-9 I believe (but don’t hold me to it). Had there been a paperback or second edition of the hardback Guardian I would have made the correction. I did (I think) get it right in my Intel book — it sold a whole bunch of copies and won a bunch of awards, and nobody at Intel ever corrected me.

    Interestingly, I’ve run into Ted Hoff a few times since the first book was published — and while he gave me an earful about the Intel book, said nothing about Guardian. I have lunch with Federico Faggin once a month — and he’s never said anything. I’ll ask him in a few weeks — in particular whether the 4-bit 4004 also used the PDP architecture, or just the 8-bit 8008/8080. Neither Andy Grove (when he was alive) nor Gordon Moore (who has corrected every technical error I’ve ever made writing about Intel over the last forty years) said anything either — and Andy never hestisted to call me every obscenity when he had the chance. I can only assume they never read Guardian.

    So, kudos, and good eye, pal.

    • #13
    • December 31, 2019, at 1:25 PM PST
    • 6 likes
  14. Randy Webster Member

    The Reticulator (View Comment):

    Randy Webster (View Comment):

    Vectorman (View Comment):

    The Reticulator: They are obviously going beyond our photos, health care records and shopping lists.

    Google Home, Siri, Cortana, and Amazon Alexa


    It’ll be a cold day in hell when I have one of those in my house.

    How about a cold day in a leaky, antebellum house in Michigan?

    Sorry, @thereticulator. I misread your comment. It’s getting more and more that I see what I expect to see rather than what’s actually there.

    I understand that there are lots of cold days in such houses in Michigan.

    • #14
    • December 31, 2019, at 1:26 PM PST
    • 2 likes
  15. Arahant Member

    Randy Webster (View Comment):
    I understand that there are lots of cold days in such houses in Michigan.

    Especially in Hell, Michigan.

    • #15
    • December 31, 2019, at 1:29 PM PST
    • 3 likes
  16. Randy Webster Member

    Michael S. Malone (View Comment):
    the factual mistakes you make will not be on those things you don’t know (because you’ll look them up) but those you think you do know (because you won’t fact-check them)

    I’ve been wrong so many times when I was absolutely sure I was right that I don’t like to be too sure of myself when I’m discussing.

    • #16
    • December 31, 2019, at 1:30 PM PST
    • 3 likes
  17. Henry Castaigne Member

    The Reticulator: Maybe somebody who keeps up with popular anthropology on the internet would already know these things, but I learned from this book how singing probably preceded speech. The phrase “singing Neanderthals,” has stuck with me. I wonder if they sat around their campfires wearing bellbottoms, strumming on mastodon-gut guitars.

    People who can’t speak at all in another language can sing in an understandable (though accented) language. Also, I succeeded in remembering a 13 digit number for a psychology class by singing a sesame street tune in my head and replacing the lyrics with numbers. Singing is a big deal to humanity. 

    • #17
    • December 31, 2019, at 2:55 PM PST
    • 4 likes
  18. Eustace C. Scrubb Member

    You know, I think George Lucas read a lot of the same books I did.

    • #18
    • December 31, 2019, at 7:00 PM PST
    • 4 likes